Johnny O'Reilly, director of the excellent Russian drama The Weather Station, returns with a film that bows to none in its scope and ambition. The Irishman, long resident in Moscow, has set out to offer a multi-stranded portrait of his adopted city.
Like a well-known novel that did the same for Dublin, Moscow Never Sleeps all takes place in one day. It's a bit of a thriller. There is much comedy in here. At times the story allows in sentiment. Not everything works. But even at its weakest the film buzzes with sombre intelligence.
A famous TV actor, now drunk and unwell, is kidnapped by young idiots and forced into various humiliations. An archetypal young oligarch (Serebryakov from Leviathan) battles with the tax authorities and his trophy wife. A young woman follows the man she believes to be her father. Familial and temporal connections bind these and other stories together into a busy whirl.
Much of what goes on suggests that O’Reilly is enjoying the irony of setting the film on Moscow City Day. While the rest of the populous celebrates, the characters exchange endless gripes about the wretchedness of the locale. The actor wakes in hospital and, initially unsure whether he’s alive, wryly suggests that he’s landed in Hell. Later on, somebody compares the city to a prison that the inmates refuse to leave.
And yet. Moscow Never Sleeps does allow in moments of beauty and grandeur. The wide streets and towering buildings are shown to advantage by Fedor Lyass's widescreen photography. In one moving moment, a young man, bathing his misused grandmother, spies fireworks bursting through the window of their humble apartment.
It’s like a moment from Gogol. Indeed, the entire film profits from that mixture of dark humour and resigned pessimism that characterises so many of the Russian greats. The Irish too, come to think of it.