Enemy at the Gates (15)

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The ViewLondon Review

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Review byMatthew Turner12/03/2001

Three out of five stars
Running time: 128 mins

Impressive cat-and-mouse thriller played out against an epic background - good performances and superb action sequences, but slightly marred by some tantalisingly under-developed plot-lines.

Director Jean-Jacques Annaud’s $85 million production of Enemy at the Gates is reputedly the most expensive film ever shot in Europe. Luckily, the money appears to have been well-spent, because the film’s special effects and set design rival those of Saving Private Ryan.

The film is set in Autumn, 1942 – a stern voice-over informs us that "Europe lies crushed beneath the Nazi jackboot" and explains that the city of Stalingrad is all that stands between the Nazis and their domination of the Soviet Union (and the gateway to Asia).

Understandably, Stalin has ordered that Stalingrad be defended at all costs, and in the brutal opening scenes of Russian conscripts caught in a bloody air-raid while crossing the River Volga, we see that the Russians have been ordered to shoot their own men if they attempt desertion.

One such conscript is Vassili Zaitsev (Jude Law), a peasant farmer who happens to be a crack-shot with a rifle. He is befriended by Soviet propaganda officer Danilev (Joseph Fiennes), who quickly realises the morale-boosting potential of stories about ‘heroes’ and rallies the demoralised troops around stories of Zaitsev’s exploits, turning him into a national hero.

In response, the Germans send in their own sniper, Major Konig (Ed Harris), to kill Zaitsev, and a deadly game of cat-and-mouse ensues. Meanwhile, Zaitsev and Danilev both fall in love with the same girl, educated Russian soldier Tania (Rachel Weisz)…

Apparently, the figures of Zaitsev and Konig are based in reality, though there are so many legends about Zaitsev that it’s difficult to separate fact from fiction. At any rate, both Zaitsev’s rifle and Konig’s telescopic sight can be seen in museums in Moscow.

The acting is superb - Law cements his status as Upcoming Major Movie Star after his star supporting turn in The Talented Mr Ripley, while Weisz, despite being given relatively little to do, provides the magic ingredient of chemistry between the two stars – the quiet moments when they share a joke together are among the film’s best scenes.

There’s also a sex scene between them that is both erotic and well-handled, conveying the desired sense of a stolen moment of intimacy. Similarly, Ed Harris is excellent as Konig, steering well clear of standard Nazi clichés and bringing out the basic humanity behind the brutal killing machine, particularly in his scenes with the young boy who plays the ‘informant’ (Gabriel Marshall-Thompson).

This has the added effect of making Konig’s final actions all the more shocking. In addition to this, there’s a good cameo from the always-reliable Ron Perlman.

On balance, the decision to have everyone speak in their natural accents (with the exception of Bob Hoskins’ only-slightly-cockney Krushchev) was probably a wise one, since it’s marginally less distracting than hearing everyone struggle with Russian accents.

The film has much to recommend it, then – in particular the spectacular battle effects (the opening scene is heart-stoppingly effective) and the stunning set-design, which depicts Stalingrad as a city with the heart ripped out of it. Annaud also gets the maximum amount of tension out of the ‘stalking’ scenes, with all the ‘heads-caught-in-telescopic-crosshair’ action you could hope for.

If the film has a problem, it’s only that many of the ideas thrown up by the script are never fully explored, whether it be the basic love-triangle between Danilev, Zaitsev and Tania or the contradictions behind hero-worship in a society of equals.

In particular, the film badly lacks a scene in which Danilev confronts Zaitsev over Tania, and a number of other ideas (Danilev writing a damning report on Zaitsev) seem to go nowhere.

That said, the central thriller element of the film more than compensates for these deficiencies as well as any of the dodgier script moments. In general, this is well-worth watching and it’s refreshing to see a side of WWII that hasn’t been shown before.

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Content updated: 18/10/2017 21:11

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