Big-budget action-adventure film The Duelist boasts an intimate scale thanks to its creators’ emphasis on the texture of nineteenth-century Saint Petersburg.
Writer-director Alexey Mizgirev’s interest in creaking floorboards, bloodstained overcoats, and muddy streets makes it easy to get caught up in the convoluted story of Yakovlev (Petr Fedorov), a jaded ex-soldier who makes his fortune fighting (and killing) on behalf of easily angered Russian aristocrats. Yakovlev may regain his lust for life after he agrees to fight obnoxious nobleman Beklemishev (Vladimir Mashkov) on behalf of flirtatious Princess Martha (Juliya Khlynina) and her naïve, overprotective brother Prince Tuchkov (Pavel Tabakov).
But what’s most arresting is the way Mizgirev’s vision of 1860s Russia shines through in the perspiration on Champagne goblets, the flicker of candlelight on faces, and the sheen of polished-steel dueling pistols.
But Mizgirev’s ground-level world-building never overshadows his characters. He shoots Fedorov’s nervous facial expressions in medium close-ups during the pregnant seconds that precede Yakovlev’s duels. And he stresses the actor’s body language when Yakovlev flashes back to being mercilessly flogged by a group of bloodthirsty soldiers. Mizgirev places his camera in front of Fedorov as he’s dragged past a gantlet of switch-wielding army men, emphasizing his limp posture instead of his grisly wounds. That eye for detail makes The Duelist‘s protagonists just as compelling as their setting.
Written and directed by Alexey Mizgirev
Opens December 2, Village East