It was extraordinary how so many intelligent English people became Communists and whose faith survived a visit to Russia. The distinguished historian Dr Christopher Hill, of whom I am very fond, is an example. He reminds me of the remark of Chesterton that the ultimate test of a Catholic was to keep the faith after a visit to Rome. Well, the film The Leviathan will extinguish any faith or hope that anyone may have had in Russia.
It is hell on earth – drab, lawless, and soulless, and above all, a land that will not tolerate any hope at all. Every shot shows that lifeless, unfinished and motiveless emptiness that you see all over suburban Russia and Turkey. The State runs on corruption; people run on vodka; and the Orthodox Church leers over all. The survivors of the serfs, the Cossacks, and Tsars have never learned the meaning of freedom, much less how to govern themselves. The State operates like a totalitarian state – it just grinds down any person or decency or life that gets in its way – and there is not an oligarch or KGB hood in sight. The Leviathan consumes all, and a sense of hopelessness oozes out of the screen like the vodka that so many pull from the bottle or take straight like medicine. No part of life is left undenied.
The plot is that of The Castle but without the happy ending, and with a lawyer who is not quite so flawless. There is a complication involving the lawyer and the wife of the hero. She is wonderfully played by a woman who invests the part with haunting elements of Anna Karenin and the wife of The Doll’s House. The bad guy is also flawless. (Remember T P McKenna as Richmond in Callan?) The film does not move fast, but the pressure never drops. It is inevitable and unrelenting, and with more meaning and purpose than a Wagner opera.
This is the strongest film I have seen since Mystic River. I went back to see that film again the next day, as I did, for very different reasons, The Castle. The Leviathan is like the former. It has something like a Shakespearian intensity that leaves you drained and unsettled, but somehow purged. If the cinema were closer I would go back to it tomorrow. This is a movie that calls for a serious liquid debrief.
I spent a lot the Easter break writing a long note on 800 years of Magna Carta. Its most famous clauses say that we (the State) will not move or send against you except under a judgment of your peers, and to none will we sell, delay, or deny justice. If you want to know what life might be like without those rights written into the fabric of our law, go and see this mighty film. If you asked me to say how far Mr Putin’s Russia is behind the West, I would say not less than 800 years.