Director: Margy Kinmonth
Cast: Matthew Macfadyen, Tom Hollander, James Fleet, Eleanor Tomlinson, Daisy Bevan
Running Time: TBC
During the revolution which overthrew the Tsars and installed a communist government, artists across Russia were having their own revolution. This abstract art movement ran parallel to the political revolution, inspired by its ideas, but the works created by it were suppressed by Stalin and his authorities. This new documentary, from experienced TV documentary director Margy Kinmonth, tells the story of this little-known era, espousing a new understanding of the development of abstract work in Russian art history.
The director- Kinmonth- is an old hand when it comes to the subject matter, having made documentary work both in Russia (Hermitage Revealed) and concerning art history (War Art, with Eddie Redmayne). She’s enlisted top British actors, like Tom Hollander and Matthew Macfadyen, to bring to life the story of these artists by reading their memoirs and letters. She also secures interviews with several surviving relatives of the featured artists to help further illustrate the period of history her film covers. But the real coup of the film is the level of access she has secured to Russian cultural institutions.
In particular, much of the film explores the Winter Palace and its capacious archives. With a well-known subject matter, access would be great, but non-essential. But when the subject matter is a little known period of art, and one that was actively politically suppressed, access to these archives is all-important. As the film somewhat implies, these works are sort of hidden from view, as they expose a version and period of history that doesn’t gel with the current narrative from the Kremlin or with private interest. It’s a time and place which it doesn’t pay to recall in modern-day Russia, which has its own problems with political suppression. So research on a piece like this isn’t just to flesh out the documentary- it presents significant discoveries in its own right, like a previously unknown original work of ‘analytic realism’ by the artist Filonov, or KGB archive papers relating to the death of another featured artist. This is helped along by including interviews with surviving relatives of the artists, which expands on personal details and helps fill in the pictures of people who made such exciting work in difficult circumstances.
This is positive, because other parts of the documentary are less successful. There is an original soundtrack composed for the film, which is a nice listen but slightly bland and definitely forgettable. There are also few particularly interesting visuals; mostly the director is content to use a Ken Burns-type approach, with archive photography of contemporary people and paintings comprising the bulk of the film. More engaging sections- like a group of people demonstrating biomechanics, an all but forgotten form of physical theatre, or a superimposition of a painting over the architecture of the Winter Palace- form a welcome break from this, but are few and far between. By and large, the director opts to let the artworks speak for themselves.
Overall, the documentary feels a little safe, and would most likely be more at home on a small screen instead of a cinema. It uses a generic set of general views of a location while talking about it; it presents a version of events without any great detail, opting for an overview rather than specifics; it has nice narration over the top, and uses voiceovers instead of subtitles for translation. But this isn’t surprising as the director has an extensive TV background. Ultimately, there’s nothing wrong with just giving a full and proper account of something- not every documentary needs extensive reconstructions and endless interviews and B-roll and wistful looks. Kinmonth’s subjects are long dead and their living relatives often at best have tangential connections to these people, some of whom they don’t even remember meeting (if met them at all). Passion’s bound to be at a low ebb. Instead, she focuses on the most important thing: the artworks produced. The overall effect is that where Revolution fails as a film, it tends to succeed as an excellent record of a time and a place that produced many revolutions.
REVOLUTION – NEW ART FOR A NEW WORLD is released November 10th.