The tone is set right from the opening frames: the cold, harsh seascape accompanied by a fervent soundtrack (trademark Philip Glass), occasionally dissonant, serves to draw us in and unsettle us at the same time.
Then this Russian tragedy unfolds with great restraint, tantalisingly eking out explanations as we encounter the domestic travails of the hot-headed Kolya, who is fighting the authorities to retain his ancestral home, his insolent teenage son Roma, and his put-upon wife, Lilya.
It’s a world where people swig vodka like they’re Pump bottles and even the traffic cops drive drunk. Threatened by the mayor whose greed has stolen his pride, Kolya’s life starts to come apart at the seams. The battle of the little guy against institutional corruption is a simple and yet devastating conceit, with the slow turning of screws seeing the tension increase for players and audience alike.
Directed by the Cannes and Golden Globe award-winning Andrey Zvyagintsev (The Return), the camerawork is fascinating, often idly tracking one character’s activity while everyone else continues acting off-screen until the camera returns. These long takes deliver a play-like sensibility which increases the intimacy, and as a result even though there are no wholly good guys in this melodrama, it’s impossible not to love the smart lawyer with his wonderful boxer’s face, and the tough Russian broad who plays Lilya’s best friend.
A tale of corruption, injustice, and the hypocrisy of truth, Leviathan is none too subtle in evoking its religious and literal references. But it doesn’t matter. Thanks to engrossing photography and pitch-perfect performances, it is gripping until the final bleak frame.