Director: Chris Bernard
Screenplay: Frank Clarke
Producers: Stephen Woolley
Starring: Alexandra Pigg, Margi Clarke, Peter Firth, Alfred Molina
BBFC Certification: 15
Duration: 94 mins
Written by Liverpudlian playwright Frank Clarke and directed by Chris Bernard, Letter to Brezhnev was a low-budget British film which became a surprise hit with audiences and managed to achieve some international success. A curious, awkward artefact of the 80s, Letter to Brezhnev at once appears to have more in common with the BBC Play for Today series than more cinematic equivalents, mixing an endearing scratchiness with a distracting artifice. It had already been a hit as a stage production and, to its credit, the film version of Letter to Brezhnev does manage to open out the scope of the story, its sometimes stagey sets mixed with location work around a depressingly empty and grey Liverpool. The sense of melancholy this conjures up gives Letter to Brezhnev a pleasingly ambiguous atmosphere and while it is often described as a romantic comedy, it feels far more like a romantic drama with a prominent political undercurrent. Promising as this may sound, unfortunately there are too many shortcomings that the film just cannot get out from under.
To begin with, and most distractingly, there is the acting. Letter to Brezhnev features two already well-established actors in the roles of two Russian sailors on leave in Liverpool. In these roles, Peter Firth and Alfred Molina get top billing on the credits and yet they are more like props, narrative necessities who very much play second fiddle to the film’s two female leads Alexandra Pigg and Margi Clarke. Pigg and Clarke are Elaine and Teresa, two girls trying to escape the doldrums of Thatcher’s Britain (and, in Teresa’s case, a job that involves spending the best part of her day with her hand up dead chickens’ bums, an indignity which is regularly referred to throughout the film) with a night on the town. Teresa begins very much as the epitome of the ‘scally’ scouse stereotype; brassy, loud and willing to steal anything, from half-finished drinks to a dance partner’s wallet, but as the film progresses her characters’ complexities show through and her need to hide behind such a stereotype becomes clear. In this supporting role, Margi Clarke feels semi-iconic, with her bleach-blonde hair and striking red dress, and Clarke’s performance, though wobbly in places, is the best in the film. Pigg on the other hand, though BAFTA-nominated as the seemingly more introverted Elaine, is consistently unconvincing. From her opening scene, her performance feels like a decent stab at stage acting by a secondary school senior, with lines drawled off in one big hurry to get to the next speech. As it becomes clear that Elaine is the emotional centre of the film, this shortcoming goes from distracting to sadly unforgivable.
Another unfortunate defect that scuppers Letter to Brezhnev is Clarke’s uneven script. The structure is sound, following the women across one night out in which they meet the Russian sailors in the film’s first half and then in the second half focusing mainly on Elaine’s quest to be with her new-found lover Peter at any cost, despite the fact he has returned to Russia. This two act debt to the story’s stage origins is smoothly smuggled onto the screen without attracting accusations of Letter to Brezhnev being merely a filmed play. But the solid premise is drastically undersold, with the whirlwind romance between Peter and Elaine never coming close to convincing. Clarke mainly attempts to achieve a realistic blossoming love between the pair through painfully awful conversations about stars and a sweet confounding of expected sexual attitudes on Peter’s part. The sailors represent something different and exciting to the women but there is little in either Clarke’s dialogue or the performances of Firth or Molina to help the audience see them as anything but symbols. When declarations of undying love emerge, they seem utterly ridiculous, especially as they are stated with such bland, dead-eyed indifference. The comedic elements of the script also fall short and, despite the patronage of Clarke’s fellow Liverpudlian playwright Willy Russell, it feels like it is missing the witticisms that make Educating Rita or the work of Alan Bleasdale as entertaining as they are unique. There are flashes of greatness (told by her new Russian acquaintance that in his country if you don’t work, you don’t eat, Elaine deadpans “yeah, it’s a bit like that ‘ere too”) but mostly they are lost among semi-realistic, expletive-strewn chatter that veers between believable and overegged.
In many ways, Letter to Brezhnev feels like a film lost in time. Although it situates itself in the 80s through politics and music (Bronski Beat’s Hit That Perfect Beat appears jarringly on the soundtrack), the film also has much in common with the so-called “women’s pictures” of the 40s and 50s and the griminess of the British New Wave 60s films (a debt perhaps acknowledged by the appearance of Sandie Shaw’s Always Something There to Remind Me on the soundtrack, albeit in a re-recorded version). It’s easy to admire the film’s grand ambition but less easy to enjoy the murky consommé that results from their uneasy mingling. Perhaps with tighter scripting and better actors in the lead roles (I’d happily retain Margi Clarke as Teresa and Molina is fair enough in an undemanding, silent beefcake role) Letter to Brezhnev could have emerged as something more worthwhile but, in all honesty, the film made such a minimal impact on me that I feel it is better left where it is as a historical curio that could have been more but which is held with great affection by its small cult of admirers.
Letter to Brezhnev is released by the BFI on Dual Format DVD and Blu-ray on 24 April 2017. Special features are as follows:
– An interview with Margi Clarke (2017, 35 mins)
– An interview with Alexandra Pigg and Peter Firth (2017, 14 mins)
-Audio commentary with Margi Clarke
– Audio commentary with Chris Bernard and Frank Clarke
– From Liverpool with Love – original making of documentary (2003, 16 mins)
– Original theatrical trailer
– Stills and Collections gallery
– Illustrated booklet including new writing by Frank Clarke and Professor Julia Hallam and full film credits