Dir: Achim Von Borries. Germany. 2000. 98 mins.

Prod co: Tossell Pictures. Co-prods: ZDF, Studio Babelsberg, DFFB. Int'l Sales: Bavaria Film International (00 49 89 64 99 26 86). Prods: Judy Tossell, Susanne Marian. Scr: Von Borries. DoP: Jutta Pohlmann. Prod des: Ulrika Andersson. Ed: Gergana Voight. Music: Daler Nazarov, Ingo L. Frenzel. Main cast: Ivan Shvedoff, Merab Ninidze, Anna Geisleova, Chulpan Khamatova.

England!, Von Borries' feature debut (his graduation work from the Berlin Film School), can be filed under the heading "small but perfectly formed". A well-paced, atmospheric and whimsically touching piece, it should find favour at midrange festivals and, with careful handling, could be nurtured through a modest arthouse and small-screen career.

A brief prologue set in the summer of 1986 introduces the carefree Valeri (Shvedorff) and his friend Victor clowning around in the countryside just outside Chernobyl where they and thousands of other Soviet troops have been deployed to contain the nuclear disaster. Cut to winter, some years later: Valeri is suffering from mysterious ailments and learns he does not have long to live. He travels to Berlin to find Victor and follow their old dream of travelling together to England.

Berlin proves a cold, unfriendly place, and Victor has disappeared from the face of the earth, but Pavel, a morose painter, (Ninidze) reluctantly offers Valeri a berth in his bleak apartment. The heart of the film is the growth of their friendship and Valeri's ephemeral encounters with some of the other fringe-dwellers - a mail-order bride, a gang of Russian entrepreneurs, sundry artists and poseurs - in this fast-changing city.

What counts, of course, is the subtle etching of relationships and moods rather than the longed-for trip to England (the film's poetic conclusion strikes an appropriately ambiguous note on this score). Performances, notably from Shvedorff as the flighty - and by no means always likeable - hero, are nicely judged. Von Borries has created a little gallery of characters who are engaging and vivid without needing to curry for the audience's sympathy or have all their motives spelled out at every turn. The technical credits (a plangent, sparingly used music track, in particular) are polished across the board.