Servant of Two Masters
There are several aspects to this film which need to be viewed before the films itself is viewed. Otherwise you might not get what you are expecting, and might do a great deal of suffering. The film itself is structurally confusing, as if two different teams had been working on two different films, without being allowed to know what the other unit is doing. It takes off as a light hearted historical romance: you get the obligatory glitter of the Sun King's court, lovely and corrupt noblemen and -women, dispute at cards, a lady throwing in her valuable necklace, fake letters being fabricated by ill-wishing, jealous courtesans, gentlemen dueling and the King, desiring the lady in question for himself, reprimanding them by sending them as emissaries to two courts which are at war, i.e. most certainly to their death.
From that point on the other unit takes over: we get a brutal, realistic battle picture with nothing much more than the combat and brutality of early XVIII century warfare. Then, occasionally, the "romance"-team steps in, introducing the rather lame remnants of the romantic involvement left back in France, as the heroine decides to embark on the perilous journey to be re-united with her lover (actually, as far as we know, they only had some casual sex one night during which the chevalier didn't even remove his wig).
Overall, the picture suffers from this structural inhomogeneity. I saw ladies who had been lured to see the film as a historical romance, get up and walk as it became clear that the romantic part is superficial and lame and the military part is bloody and unromantic. Even though there's a lot of glamour, the scenes depend too heavily upon familiar clichés which were introduced by Hollywood about two generations ago.
The battle scenes are extremely well done. The recreation of brutally ineffective, senselessly life-squandering warfare is absolutely top notch. If you are interested in war films, this is as good as it gets. As it is very realistic, don't expect much pathos or heroic fun: it's dirty and stupid as any war is. You get beautiful women raped, shot and hanged, and hundreds of handsome youth being turned into cannon fodder. The positive - and surprising - thing is, that even though it's a Russian film, the Russians aren't necessarily the heroes. They have wronged the Poles, so these fraternize with the Swedes, who in turn afflict misery upon Ukrainians and others who are supposed to be the enemies. Czar Peter the Great is a universal Russian hero, and to see him sending a girl to the gallows (a girl, whose whole family has been butchered by the Russians and who only has lived for rightful revenge) is something that has never before been done in Russian cinema.
Also rather unique is the fact that the dialog is in authentic languages: first in French, then in Polish, then Swedish and then Russian (and Ukrainian). The cast is 100 % Russian, who have memorized the lines in according languages (phonetically in most cases, it seems), and then the dialog has been dubbed - also by Russians! The results are mixed. French sounds adequate, as does Polish. Unfortunately there haven't been any Swedish-speakers around, so this part of the film is utterly ridiculous: even the word "Sverige" (Sweden) is pronounced totally wrong! To cover up the outcome, these scenes aren't provided with subtitles, but instead we get a monotonic Russian voice translating the dialog. This distracts from the action quite a lot and is very much to be blamed for the ineffectiveness of these sequences. As this big budget project has obviously taken a huge amount of money, I wonder why they have allowed that minor obstacle to virtually ruin a lot of the film's otherwise pristine historical accuracy.
I would have to state that this is a man's picture. You don't get the emotional depth, but you get a lot of very pretty girls (Ksenya Knyazeva is so superbly beautiful that for many viewers her presence on the screen is quite worthy of the ticket price). Then you get the very strong motive of friendship between two very different men, whose love-hate relationship carries much of the tension in the film. Most of the actors are good, even though it's not very comfortable to mouth your way through the scenes without understanding yourself. The lighting and camera-work, as well as the art direction is first class and makes the film watchable even when you don't believe what you see. Great pains have been taken to recreate the period, and the results are very good indeed. I am not sure what factors are responsible for the film not really clicking - probably a mixed bag of different undermining frivolities, such as listed above.
Worthy of a look for those interested in battle scenes and historical accuracy. To be avoided by those who look forward to either a fun epic spectacle, tantalizing love romance or deep Award winning drama.
Needless to say, this Servant of Two Masters is not based on the play by Carlo Goldoni.