Stars: Viktoria Miroshnichenko, Vasilisa Perelygina, Konstantin Balakirev
By Nicole Ackman
Perhaps it goes without saying that the Russian historical drama “Beanpole” (2019) is bleak. Directed by Kantemir Balagov, it’s a look at Leningrad after World War II as soldiers trickle back in from the front and people try to put their lives back together after the trauma of war. However, nothing could have prepared me for how twisted and depressing the film is.
The film premiered at Cannes Film Festival in 2019 and it won Balagov the Un Certain Regard Best Director award. It was also chosen as Russia’s entry for Best International Feature Film for last year’s Academy Awards and made the shortlist, though it was not nominated for the Oscar. “Beanpole” is now finally available on Amazon Prime, for wide consumption. With the overwhelmingly positive reviews it received from critics, I expected to like this film.
Iya (Viktoria Miroshnichenko), nicknamed Beanpole for her abnormal height, is a nurse at a hospital who suffers from episodes of PTSD. The film opens with her frozen in such an episode, something that occurs multiple times over the course of the film, and the sound work for these scenes is impressive. Eventually, her friend Masha (Vasilisa Perelygina) returns from the front and we learn from her that Iya had been sent home early because of a traumatic head injury. The film also follows a former soldier named Stepan (Konstantin Balakirev) who is paralyzed from the neck down and struggles with his fate.
“Ultimately, as much as I wanted to like this film, I struggled to connect with it…The plot, as bleak and twisted as it is, seems to meander and even the dialogue feels slow, with long pauses between lines. The characters themselves are largely unlikable and most of the relationships shown are toxic.”
Balagov certainly has interesting things to say about Russia post-World War II. The script, by Balagov and Alexander Terekhov, was inspired by Svetlana Alexievich’s “The Unwomanly Face of War: An Oral History of Women in World War II.” The film explores the effects of the war on both men and women, showing the physical and mental wounds that they received in it and the ways it makes returning to a normal life seem impossible. Motherhood, and in particular Masha’s desire to have a child, is another theme in the film.
Ultimately, as much as I wanted to like this film, I struggled to connect with it. It’s a very difficult film to watch as it features sensitive topics including lethal injection and PTSD. There are several sexual scenes of dubious consent and an extended scene in which a small child is killed. The plot, as bleak and twisted as it is, seems to meander and even the dialogue feels slow, with long pauses between lines. The characters themselves are largely unlikable and most of the relationships shown are toxic, including the one between Iya and Masha.
The film’s production design and cinematography are certainly well done, and the very stylized coloring makes an interesting contrast with the very grey subject matter. However, the film drags on for too long with a runtime of two hours and twenty minutes. Whether it’s because the film is just too Russian for my American sensibilities or because it’s difficult to sit through something so relentlessly joyless while living through our own global tragedy, I found “Beanpole” very unengaging.