The most controversial, anticipated film in years is coming soon to Russia. What's it actually about?
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When it comes to cultural scandals in contemporary Russia, it’s hard to find anything so controversial as “Matilda,” a new film by Alexey Uchitel about the love affair between Nicholas Romanov, when he was still heir to the tsarist empire, and Matilda Kshesinskaya, a celebrated ballerina of the St. Petersburg Imperial Theaters. A campaign against the movie has raged for almost a year now, and State Duma deputy (former Crimean Attorney General) Natalia Poklonskaya wants the film banned on the grounds that it “insults” Nicholas II, who is considered a holy saint by Russian Orthodox Christians. “Matilda“ premieres on October 26, but some movie theaters have refused to show it, citing threats of violence and one arson attack in Yekaterinburg. In September, arsonists set fire to two cars outside the law office of Konstantin Dobrynin, who represents Alexey Uchitel, and scattered slips of paper with the inscription: “You’ll burn for Matilda!” Meduza film critic Anton Dolin watched “Matilda” to find out what all the fuss is about.
Whether you’re a fan, a critic, or even one of its creators, there’s no use denying the fact that “Matilda” has long been more than just a movie. Any conversation about this film has to go beyond aesthetic evaluation, beginning inevitably with the refutation of the absurd accusations by “Tsar-believer” sects that have declared the film a dangerous heresy, without ever seeing it.
This is where we’ll start, too.
The film does not tarnish the reputation or memory of Nicholas II in the slightest. In fact, Tsar Nicholas II hardly even appears on screen. There’s only “Nicky” — the unfortunate, tender-hearted heir to the throne.
How do you not fall for a guy like that? It’s a question for wayward ballerina Matilda Kshesinskaya, but it’s also for any of us. German theater guru Lars Eidinger, whom Poklonskaya unfairly calls a “porn actor,” gives the best performance of his career in this role. His work alone is enough to justify all the film’s shortcomings. Naturally handsome, but awkward and tense, and clueless when it comes to women (as well as friends, enemies, and his own subjects), Nicky immediately evokes feelings of pity mixed with sympathy. Eidinger — unrecognizably brutal on the stage, where he’s also capable of these emotional overtones — does not speak Russian, and was voiced by Maxim Matveyev. Paradoxically, this worked to the movie’s advantage. The film’s often cliche dialogue is its biggest weakness, but Eidinger plays his character as if pushing past the script, penetrating into those hidden zones where words are powerless.
Of all the characters Eidinger has played at Berlin’s Schaubühne Theater, Nicky is closest of all to Hamlet, who was also stifled by the authority of his charismatic giant of a father (Sergey Garmash plays Alexander III with befitting immensity) and his strict mother (portrayed wonderfully by Lithuanian actress Ingeborga Dapkūnaitė), by obligations to a prim fiancee (played by Luise Wolfram, also from the Schaubühne Theater), and by the horror of his own future responsibility. He also becomes lost and emotionally torn, when his father dies. The role of faithful Horatio belongs to Grigory Dobrygin, whose Grand Duke Andrey Vladimirovich (Kshesinskaya’s ultimate husband in real life) is quiet, sensible, and reserved. The part of the fierce Laertes goes to an invented character: Lieutenant Vorontsov (a clear caricature brought to life with unbridled passion by Danila Kozlovsky).
But if this is Hamlet, it’s the Disney version. Romantic, colorful, and sentimental, the focus is a princess, not a prince, after all, and she’s not here to take up Ophelia’s meek, submissive role. Matilda doesn’t drown (though people try to drown her in the film) and she doesn’t end up in a monastery. Fearless, fluid, and charming as Matilda Kshesinskaya, Polish actress Michalina Olszanska is a real star in this film. In fact, it’s hard to believe such a thing could turn up in Russian cinema, with all its complexes. She sets the tone for the entire movie, reviving a ceremonial and old-fashioned ballet with her charmingly awkward fouetté. Thanks to romantic fantasy, the ritual grows into a fairytale.
In this fairytale, we’ll find room for the wise, old monarch, the cunning rival, the jealous contender for the damsel’s heart, the comic dance relief (a very colorful Evgeny Mironov), the crafty courtier (Konstantin Pobedonostsev — the film’s Polonius — portrayed subtly by Taganka Theater veteran Konstantin Zheldin), the spiteful and insidious detective (the head inspector of the Vlasov police, energetically played by Vitaly Kishchenko), and even — if you can believe it — the infernal sorcerer, whose role is entrusted to Schaubühne art director Thomas Ostermeier.
The fairytale atmosphere not only forms the film’s narrative (the story of a prince’s love for a lowly beauty), but it also marks an unprecedented artistic decision. The scale of production will send your head spinning: the scenery is unimaginably spectacular, the cinematography by Yuri Klimenko is delicate and inspired, and Nataliya Vasilyeva’s costume design deserves its own poem. It’s not a film, but a birthday cake.
More than anything, “Matilda” resembles the 2015 version of “Cinderella,” starring Lily James and directed by Kenneth Branagh, who’s directed or starred in several film adaptations of William Shakespeare's plays — most notably the 1996 adaptation of “Hamlet.”
Does this mean all the insane controversy surrounding “Matilda” is nothing more than a pure misunderstanding about a routine costume melodrama? Yes. And no. Consciously or not, Alexey Uchitel has broached a taboo subject, and it concerns more than the fate of one martyred emperor.
On the 100th anniversary of the October Revolution, Russian cinema is as silent as the grave. Everyone senses the danger of going anywhere near anything: whether it’s the Reds, the Whites, Lenin, or the tsar, you’re sure to offend someone. Without a doubt, “Matilda” is a powerful statement on this. Without straying from the main historical facts, this film nonetheless belongs to the genre of alternate history. The movie is about how everything might be different, if Nikolai hadn’t swatted a butterfly — that is, if he hadn’t rejected Matilda out of duty to the throne. It might be like it is in the film: beautiful, elegant, wealthy, and like a fairytale. There would have been no Khodynka Tragedy (when almost 1,400 people died in a stampede during festivities following Nicholas II’s coronation); the tsar would not have abdicated; there would have been no coup; and Russia might have escaped two world wars. The country might have known only love, harmony, and the Russia we today have lost — even if it was us ourselves who invented it.
“Matilda” is a modest love story that happens to have opened a rift in Russian society, but a romance between a future ruler and a ballerina is also an affair that could have changed the empire’s destiny. It’s a pity that it didn’t. Or maybe it isn’t. We will never know.