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Evening Standard
Evening Standard
Jo-Ann Titmarsh

Limonov: The Ballad at Cannes review – Ben Whishaw relishes the role of real-life Russian 'hoodlum poet'

Emmanuel Carrère’s biographical novel of Eduard Limonov is called The Outrageous Adventures of the Radical Soviet Poet Who Became a Bum in New York, a Sensation in France, and a Political Antihero in Russia. Phew. That’s a lot of story to adapt and fit into 138 minutes.

Taking on this onerous task is Russian director Kirill Serebrennikov, whose filmography includes Petrov’s Flu and Summer. And this film has some of his familiar elements, such as the use of animation interspersed with the live action, usually to signal chapter headings or place names.

Limonov is played by Ben Whishaw as a posturing rockstar writer – or, in his words, “a schoolboy, hoodlum factory worker and poet” – whose determination to be famous is all-consuming.

The action shifts from Moscow in 1989, where Limonov is holding a conference with questions from the audience, the colours muted and almost in penumbra, before heading to his hometown of Kharkiv, where he sewed jeans in a factory.

After shifting to black and white, colour returns more brightly as the film heads to Moscow in 1972, where Limonov (who goes by the moniker Eddie) mingles with the intellectuals and poets he despises.

It is at one of these soirées that he meets Elena (Viktoria Miroshinichenko) and though a friend suggests she is way out of his league, an unlikely love affair blossoms after the poet’s dramatic and bloody declaration of love.

The film follows the pair to New York, with no explanation of how they got there. They spend most of their time making love, but when Elena begins to make a career for herself the relationship unravels.

Serebrennikov’s 1970s New York is just like you picture it, thanks to production designer Vlad Ogay (who also did impressive work on Petrov’s Flu): dirty, gritty, seething with grifters and characters – there’s even a girl decked out like Jodie Foster in Taxi Driver leaning into a cab, not to mention protesters and bible bashers on every corner.

Just as I was wondering whether the director was aiming for this heightened, stagey look or if the fake look of those streets was accidental, Whishaw races through some double doors and takes us out of the set and onto the film lot. Serebrennikov is a renowned theatre director and scenographer, that background certainly showing here.

Whishaw is an unusual bit of casting but he seems to relish this complex and not particularly likeable character, his performance full of energy. Despite the actor’s allure, it is hard to see audiences flocking to the cinema to see a film about a relatively unknown Russian, and a pretty unpleasant one to boot.

One major issue with this English-language film is the fact that everyone speaks with an accent – why would Eddie and Elena speak English with Russian accents when they are together? Films like The Death of Stalin show that audiences are perfectly capable of listening to an actor speak with their own accent and managing to understand where they are from, and movies like House of Gucci show how grating these accents can be.

The film shifts between countries and decades, often at breakneck speed. There was a great piece of visual history as Limonov races through events such as John Lennon’s murder, the Chernobyl disaster, and so on.

The final part focuses on Limonov’s links to fascist Russian nationalists, his imprisonment, and eventual release. It is only during the end credits that Serebrennikov divulges Limonov’s political leanings, which are unsavoury to put it mildly.

Someone asks Limonov: “Is it true that there’s only one thing you can write about, and that is yourself?” With a life such as his, it is hardly surprising the man found himself so fascinating.

Whether audiences will find Serebrennikov’s ultimately superficial film as fascinating is unlikely, despite the great lead performance and Serebrennikov’s trademark tropes (not to mention a densely-packed soundtrack).

With a little more digging into the depths of Limonov’s politics, and a little less focus on Eddie and Elena’s sex life, this biography of such a flawed and complex man would have been a lot more edifying.

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