Russian Ark Review: Ambition Breeds Boredom
Russian Ark is a 2002 film that has gained a significant reputation due to its central gimmick; the entire film is presented as one long, unbroken steadicam shot. Indeed, director Aleksandr Sokurov did manage to capture the entire film in one shot. This is the main reason the film has received as much attention as it has. I will admit, my interest in the film mostly stemmed from the idea of an entire film being done in one shot. The amount of talent and ambition required to pull off such a feat clearly deserved my attention.
The film follows an unnamed protagonist, who is most likely a ghost, wandering through a Russian museum while encountering several individuals. Some of these characters are fictitious, some of them are real and all of them are from different time lines. The protagonist comments on these people as he wanders through. The overall effect is to take the viewer on a dream-like trip through Russian history.
I will say upfront I am not very well versed in Russian history. As a result, I found the film left me cold for the majority of the run time. One might argue that the fault lies with me and not the film, but I disagree. The film’s job should be to immerse the viewer regardless of their knowledge on the subject matter. To put this into perspective, I know little about the IRA, but I loved Hunger. I know little about the 1920s in Europe, but I loved Midnight in Paris. I know little about ballet, but I loved Black Swan. My point is, a good film can make any subject matter interesting, either through teaching the audience or through interesting story and characters.
The primary problem at the heart of Russian Ark is a simple one; nothing happens. The entire film is just a guy walking around a museum pointing things out, and very rarely is this monotony broken. The main character and his friend who also tours the museum are pretty bland and uninteresting and the historical figures they encounter aren’t much better. Meeting historical figures could have been cool but I know very little about who these people are and thus, I don’t care. All this creates a film which is intensely boring for most of its hour and forty minute run time.
I suppose it’s time I evaluate the main selling point of the film, the cinematography. I will admit the fact that the entire film is one unbroken take is pretty impressive on a technical level. It isn’t fun to watch and becomes tedious at points, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t a significant challenge the filmmakers overcame. The cinematography also makes the film feel like a dream. Unfortunately, the film flounders in several other areas. The production values are not terribly impressive and while none of the acting is bad, none of the characters are interesting. The dialogue is also very stiff and robotic. Hell, even the cinematography at times looks rough. I suppose the price for such an unprecedented tracking shot was a high one.
I don’t like Russian Ark, though there are certain aspects I will give it credit for. The pure ambition to do an entire film in one shot deserves some respect and there is one scene in a ballroom which was pretty good, so I can’t condemn the film entirely. But at the same time, Russian Ark is a painfully boring film which offered me nothing as far as story and characters go. Even if you’re really engrossed in the technical details of filmmaking, I can’t imagine you’ll enjoy this film too much. Unless you’re big into Russian history, my advice is stay way.
What do you think? Leave a comment.