Dir: Nikita Mikhalkov Russia 2007. 158 mins.
Russian maestro Nikita Mikhalkov proves that Sidney Lumet's classic jury drama 12 Angry Men can work in another time and another place in this tasty adaptation, which is tough and passionate enough to survive the occasional lapse into Slavic sentimentality. It's hard to believe that this assured work was shot as a way of keeping cast and crew busy during a long unscheduled break in the production of Burnt by the Sun 2, the upcoming sequel to the director's 1994 drama.
With this story of an all-male jury called on to decide whether a Chechen boy is guilty of killing his adoptive father, Mikhalkov and his co-writers transpose Reginald Rose's script from post-McCarthyite America to post-Communist Russia. 12 preserves the original's fierce liberal agenda but has more of a sense of humour: this is a wry, humanistic state-of-the-nation tragi-comedy in true Mikhalkov style, carried by a fine ensemble cast.
The film was well-received at the Venice film festival, where it narrowly missed out on the top prize; instead, the director was awarded a Special Lion for his overall body of work.
Despite a running time of over two and a half hours, this is Mikhalkov's most commercially viable film for some time - at least since Urga (1991). The widely-known Lumet original will provide a bridge for non-Russian audiences, while at home the director's standing as a sort of unofficial minister of culture, combined with the topicality of his appeal for tolerance and the rule of law at a time when these values are under attack, will stir interest and debate, especially among older audiences.
Like Lumet's original, 12 is almost entirely set in the room where the jury convenes. But as the court buildings are being renovated, the twelve men are accommodated in a school gymnasium - a setting which not only provides a lot more panning and tracking space than the 16-by-24-foot jury room of Twelve Angry Men, but also carries a potential for metaphor that Mikhalkov ably exploits. There's a piano locked behind bars, a basketball that gets stuck between the hoop and backboard on the first throw and, towards the end, a sparrow that flies in from the window and can't get out (the latter is one of the few times when Mikhalkov's symbolism becomes heavy-handed).
As in Lumet, the case against the accused - an 18-year-old Chechen boy alleged to have knifed the Russian soldier who adopted him - seems watertight at first. But one juror, a nervous but increasingly determined businessman (Sergey Makovetsky) voices an uncertainty, and as the other eleven reluctantly begin to discuss a case they thought was closed, cracks open up in their united front, and the case for the prosecution comes to seem increasingly flawed.
Along the way they reveal their colours: there's a racist taxi driver (Sergey Garmash) for whom the fact that the boy is Chechen is enough to condemn him, a Harvard-educated New Russian TV executive (Yuri Stoyanov) who changes his decision four times, a cemetery director (Michail Efremov) who reveals that in Russia, bribery and corruption continue even beyond the grave (or at least around it).
Himself an experienced actor, Mikhalkov plays an elderly, absent-minded former metro builder who carries a spare toilet seat in his suitcase; paradoxically, his performance is the only one that feels a little stagey.
Scenes of the accused boy's childhood in Chechnya are cut in with the main action: sentimental vignettes of rural life and full-on battle scenes that act unsubtly, but effectively, to suggest that he is more a victim of violence than a perpetrator.
Deep staging and extreme close-ups alternate in Vladislav Opeliants' cinematography, which also uses lighting to highlight the three phases of the debate: from raking evening light to cold neon to a warmer sunlit look in the final stages.
Edward Artemiev's score uses orchestral strings to rack up the sentiment, but also works some lighter, inventive variations on Chechen folk melodies.
There's a twist, of sorts, at the end of Mikhalkov's version, though one wishes it was a little more of a twist: the 'soft' ending is one of the few weak points in an otherwise impressively controlled dramatic arc.
Three T Productions (RU)
Three T Productions (RU)