out of Five
Running time: 109
Quietly gripping Russian drama with a thought-provoking script and a captivating central performance from Nadezhda Markina.
What's it all about?
Directed by Andrei Zvyagintsev (The Return, Banishment), Elena stars Nadezhda Markina as Elena, a fifty-something former nurse who has married wealthy former patient Vladimir (Andrey Smirnov) and lives in his luxurious house, though they maintain separate bedrooms. When Elena's slacker son from her first marriage (Aleksey Rozin as Sergei) asks Elena for financial support so that her grandson Sasha (Igor Ogourstov) can go to university and avoid the draft, Elena attempts to persuade Vladimir to let her have the money, but he refuses, wary of his own difficult relationship with his estranged daughter Katya (Elena Lyadova).
However, when Vladimir has a heart attack at the gym, he decides to make a will stipulating that Katya will get everything while Elena will receive only a monthly stipend. This, in turn, prompts Elena to take desperate measures.
Nadezhda Markina is excellent as Elena, delivering a calm and compassionate performance that belies her inner turmoil; incredibly, despite useless, ungrateful family members and a seemingly cold-hearted husband, she never loses her temper. Smirnov is equally good as Vladimir and there's great support from Elena Lyadova as Katya, who only appears in three scenes but electrifies the film with her sparky, confrontational and unpredictable presence.
The script is deceptively simple on the surface, but closer examination forces the audience to confront their own sympathies in the story – is Vladimir, in fact, right to deny money to Elena's layabout son? Particularly when Sasha is revealed to be more interested in beating up homeless people or playing video games (and at any rate ignoring his grandmother) than in ever attending university? Just how much of this is intended as political allegory is also open to debate.
In addition, the film is beautifully shot, courtesy of Mikhail Krichman's chilly cinematography and the terrific score makes powerful use of Philip Glass' Third Symphony. On top of that, Zvyagintsev creates an emotionally tense atmosphere throughout and orchestrates some brilliantly suspenseful sequences, particularly the scene in the gym, which is almost Hitchcockian in terms of things happening when you least expect them.
Elena is a quietly gripping, thought-provoking Russian drama with a tremendous central performance from Nadezhda Markina. Recommended.