Starring: Tom Prior, Oleg Zagarodnii, Diana Pozharskaya, Margus Prangel
Director: Peeter Rebane
A spate of really strong LGBT+ romances from around the world were released in the mid-2010s, but looking back now, it’s almost as if romance has been out of fashion ever since. Firebird, the new historical romance, made in and funded by Estonia, has come to buck that trend - albeit in English - bringing luscious heart-racing romance very much back to the fore.
Sergey (Prior) is young recruit serving his military service on a Soviet Air Force Base in occupied Estonia in the 1970s. Though he and his friends quietly break the strict rules of the base regularly, it isn’t until he meets handsome fighter pilot Roman (Zagorodnii) that he begins to surreptitiously rebel against the world around him. As the two embark on a clandestine relationship, Sergey is willing to throw caution to the wind to be together, whereas Roman is too keen to maintain his position in the Air Force, faking a relationship with Sergey’s best friend (Pozharskaya) to mask the truth. But with the KGB watching their every move, it’s only a matter of time before the truth begins to creep to the surface.
For a film set mostly on a nondescript concrete military base, this is a gorgeous film, drenched in beautiful cinematography. With its characters in crisp tailored uniforms, the pomp and ceremony surrounding the levers of Communist power is almost glamorous in its smart orderliness. With two impossibly handsome leads, there is a real editorial veneer on the polished turd of the Soviet Army, but this doesn’t distract whatsoever from its hazards, with border guards on constant patrol and military superiors working for the KGB. With smoking uniformed men in grey rooms counterpoint to bourgeois intelligentsia with bushy 70s haircuts, the art direction is note perfect, looking like Communism if it had been dressed by Tom Ford.
The chemistry between the pair is palpable, with both actors utterly compelling (and likeable) as our romantic heroes. Based on his true story, Prior is superb as Sergey, even if it’s confusing as to why a British actor was chosen for the part. Zagarodnii is brilliantly enigmatic opposite, even if we struggle to get past his cold veneer at times. But with a director clearly adept at capturing the attraction between the two, it’s the dynamic between them that really bursts from the screen, especially in its wildly erotic - but not gratuitous - sex scenes.
With such great lengths taken to create an authentic representation of Estonia and Moscow under Communist rule, it’s almost perplexing that the film’s dramatic potential isn’t entirely realised, however. A dastardly villain is established in Roman’s informant superior (Prangel), but this is never followed through with and events in the final act are somewhat rushed. It also follows the romantic-tragedy formula to the letter with not enough embellishment to really elevate the material. Though its setting is clearly intended to be its USP, it also fails at times in educating us about the who, why and when. We never find out what the border guards are patrolling or why, or even what the system is for Sergey’s military service. However, it does manage to show a balanced view of the era, where it’s not all doom and gloom, showing that a liberal life in Moscow was actually possible, even if it was dangerous. And Tallinn looks stunning on-screen.
Released while Russia is just two months into its war with Ukraine, there’s a universality about this story that now has even more relevance than when it was written. With audiences fully tuned into tensions between Russia and the West, Firebird’s current relevance is certainly not being lost on audiences, with echoes like this from the past ringing loud and true with a world reawakened to the problems in the East.
Though not perfect, Firebird is a strong historical romance, the likes of which we haven’t seen in years. Looking like an immaculate photo-shoot for GQ, this is an exquisitely composed film with strong performances captured by a magnificent crowd-pleasing director who gives his audience of the Instagram-generation exactly what they want. Succulent, moving and delicious, this is a romance for the ages that you can completely lose yourself in. And who even knew the Soviet Union could look so good?
UK Release: Out now in cinemas, released by Roadside Atteactions