*** This review may contain spoilers ***
(Spoiler, only if you don't know the essentials of Lermontov's
At first sight, this appears to be a bit of a vanity project: Nikolai Burlyaev writing, directing and starring in a biographical drama about the Romantic poet Mikhail Yur'evich Lermontov, with his own son playing the character as a child. But the result suggests to me that he's simply an ardent fan making the most of his opportunities. It's a lyrical, rather lovely little film that does well within its budget, and makes good use of historical locations. Dashing young men in gorgeous uniforms, elegant belles, sword-fights, pistol duels, court balls, battle action at Valerik, and decent chunks of Mikhail's poetry (especially his declaiming 'The Poet's Death' after Pushkin's demise) and glimpses of his paintings.
Burlyaev was 40 when he made this, but physically easily passes for much younger (Mikhail was only 26 when he died): he is slight and endearingly handsome, with the large, expressive eyes that so dominate the poet's portraits. Indeed, the casting, even of minor roles, is good: it was nice to see Boris Plotnikov as the feckless Yurii Lermontov, ousted from his son's life by his mother-in-law Elizaveta - diminishing my less-than-happy memories of his performance as Aleksei Petrovich in the ghastly US-financed TV serial 'Peter the Great'.
The film is, however, somewhat handicapped by the ethos of the time in which it was made - a late Soviet-era production. Mikhail's difficult temperament is played down. (I strongly suspect, as an Aspie myself, from his life and work, that he was on the autistic spectrum: the so-called 'bad manners', the hypergraphia of his sketchbooks, the obsessive and futile relationships, the sense of alientation. The 'superfluous man' type seems to me an expression of Asperger psychology as much as of a socio-political situation.) The film suggests that court machinations, rather than his poor social skills, lay behind the climactic duel: an 'Unknown Man' is shown lurking around and inciting the dandified Nikolai Martynov (nicknamed 'Martyshka' - 'Monkey'). For a fuller account of his death, I would recommend Lawrence Kelly's book, 'Lermontov: Tragedy in the Caucasus'. It was the result of a quarrel at a party: lousy social skills and champagne-fuelled macho posturing, rather than conspiracy. At least we get the classic exchange:
Martynov: "I've told you before not to make your wisecracks, especially when there are ladies present!"
Lermontov: "Why, what are you going to do about it, challenge me to a duel or something?"
- although not the famous last words, aiming into the air while telling his second, "I'm not going to fire at that idiot!" (The moral of the story is surely never to call someone an idiot when he has a loaded pistol pointing at your ribcage.)
But this is a delight to watch (as well as a major incitement to h/c!), and I'm glad to have found that it's available commercially on video (albeit without subtitles!). I've been a fan of Mikhail - a descendant of the Learmonts of Dairsie and Balcomie - since I was a student in St. Andrews (which his family ran for most of the 16C!), and this film is a splendid introduction to him and his work.
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