K-19: The Widowmaker (12A)

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The ViewLondon Review

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Review byMatthew Turner22/10/2002

Three out of Five stars
Running time: 138 mins

Average thriller, enlivened by the tale’s real-life origins, but hampered by its U-boat-load of comedy accents and its bladder-testing running time – no one should have to spend that long underwater.

The first thing to say about K19: The Widowmaker is that it’s been saddled with a truly lousy title. However, contrary to what you might think, it’s not about a mountain, and nor is it the 18th sequel in the Jim Belushi-with-a-dog franchise. Instead, it’s about a real-life Russian nuclear submarine and based on a Cold War incident, the details of which have only just been made public knowledge.

Cold War Tomfoolery

Of course, submarine movies, whether based on true stories or not, also have to contend with the sonar ‘pings’ and blaring sirens of every other submarine movie ever made, so while K-19 isn’t on the level of say, Das Boot or Crimson Tide, it’s a damn sight more fun than U-571 was.

The film is set in 1961, when the Cold War was at its hottest. The Russians are keen to send their first nuclear submarine (nicknamed ‘The Widowmaker’ on account of how many people died during its construction) on its first trial mission.

However, during tests, the sub doesn’t perform to Captain Polenin’s (Liam Neeson) standards of safety and he refuses to endanger his crew. Whereupon he is promptly replaced by the hardline, politically tied Captain Vostrikov (Harrison Ford) and forced to serve as his deputy as the sub undertakes its mission anyway.

Sure enough, once the sub is out in Arctic waters, things go horribly wrong. Initially, the fact that they are shadowed by an American destroyer is good news, as the mission is intended as a show of strength to the Americans.

World War Three

However, when the nuclear reactor goes haywire and blows the cooling system, endangering the lives of everyone aboard, the realisation sinks in that if the sub explodes and takes the Destroyer with it, the Americans might consider it an act of war that would lead to World War Three. And, naturally, Polenin and Vostrikov have different ideas as to what should be done…

What makes K-19: The Widowmaker so watchable is the fact that, with the odd bit of dramatic license excepted, the events of the movie actually happened. To that end, it’s refreshing to see a story in which the Russians are treated as the heroes – there’s not even a token American around (it would have been easy to ‘filter’ the story through the eyes of the Destroyer Captain, for example).

The downside of that, however, is the array of Comedy Accents on display, from Neeson’s Russian-With-A-Hint-Of-Irish, to Ford’s Whispering Russian, to Peter Sarsgaard’s ‘Russian The John Malkovich Way’ (Malkovich’s ‘Geef thees man hees money’ turn in Rounders has long been the benchmark by which Horrible Russian Accents are judged).

That said, once you get past the accents, the acting is okay. Sarsgaard makes the most of his turn as the inexperienced, cowardly nuclear technician and it’s good to see Liam Neeson up on screen again – he’s well-cast against Ford, as the audience looks forward to their inevitable confrontation, which in turn leads to one of the film’s best – and most unexpected - scenes.

Miraculous And Unbelievable Escape

Perhaps we could have done without Ford’s clearly shoe-horned in scene of overblown heroism, in which, despite being completely exposed to it, he miraculously escapes the radiation that burns and kills everyone else, with nothing more than a nasty cough.

That said, the gripping sequences with the reactor and the subsequent effects of the radiation are the centre-point of the movie and director Kathryn Bigelow (Point Break, Strange Days) handles these brilliantly, giving the claustrophobia that is an essential part of every submarine movie an extra dimension.

This is also helped by having the crew played by a cast of unknowns – the shock on their faces conveys the unspoken fact that these men had probably never seen the horrific effects of radiation up close. (The special effects and make-up guys are given something of a free hand in this respect too).

The main problem with K-19 is its bladder-testing running time – in particular, there’s a lengthy sequence at the beginning (the drills) that could easily have been lost. That said, K-19: The Widowmaker is worth seeing, both for its gripping true-life tale and for the onscreen pairing of Neeson and Ford.

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Content updated: 22/12/2014 15:37

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