Despite the Falling Snow is an ambitious multi-generational political thriller…
…but a lack of depth and exploration of its themes and characters stunts its power. Written and directed by Shamim Sarif (who wrote the novel of the same name upon which the film is based) never takes the time to examine thoroughly what is, in theory, wonderful material.
There are two stories at work in the film which take place forty years apart: one is of a young Alexander (Sam Reid), a man with a reasonable high position in the Kremlin. It opens with his defection to the United States at a Soviet delegation dinner. When he asks about his wife, the American agents tell him they have lost contact. Flash back to a few years earlier where we see the events that led up to his defection, which revolves around the love affair with the aforementioned wife: Katya (Rebecca Ferguson). Ah, but here’s the kink: Katya is working as a spy on behalf of the Americans. Her love affair begins as an assignment from Alexander’s friend, Misha (also a spy): she’s to get close to him and photograph any documents she finds. But of course, things get complicated when Katya begins to fall in love.
Now flash forward to after the fall of the Soviet Union. An older Alexander (Charles Dance) learns that her niece, Lauren (also Rebecca Ferguson) is planning on opening an art exhibition in Moscow, where she hopes to learn more about what happened to Katya, a sore spot for Alexander these days. We follow her through her investigation, which is filled with as much intrigue and romance as the events of forty years prior, complete with skeletons tumbling out of closets at every turn.
The film is packed full of plot. However, it’s never quite as interesting as deep as it could have been or wants to be.
The cast, however, works wonders with the occasionally flimsy scenes they are given to perform. Furtive glances, subtle line readings, and revelatory pauses lend the characters more depth than perhaps was written into them. Rebecca Ferguson perfectly captures the inevitable heartbreak and bitterness that is inevitable in (both) her situations. Anthony Head as an older Misha was a treat to watch. And, of course, Charles Dance always brings a most dignified air to even the schlockiest of productions. (Take heed now to avoid confusion at the outset: the principal Russian characters all speak with British accents. We’re working with Enemy at the Gates rules.)
The problems with the film arise when it comes to the actual storytelling. For all the ambition of its multi-generational tale of love, loss, and politics, Despite the Falling Snow is never specific enough to make it all come together as a cohesive, resonating whole.
The mechanics and parts of an intriguing (and even heartbreaking) story are all there: deception, jealousy, deep-seated resentments, and the unanticipated onslaught of love. While I am not familiar with the source material, I know that it is well regarded. However, none of these elements that might have been fleshed out in the novel are fully examined in the film. Rather than delving into the personal and political lives of the characters, the events of their lives merely unfold. One plot point, one piece of character development unfolds after the other, hinting at three dimensions but stuck in two.
For example, we never really see the process of Katya falling in love with Alexander; the relationship goes from a scene of suspenseful spycraft to marriage, with a jarring jump from deceit to romance.
The same goes for the political tensions of the anti-Kremlin agents spying on behalf of the United States. And, for that matter, Alexander’s own loyalty to the Communist regime. There characters all talk about their allegiances and frustrations, but none of them feel genuine. We don’t *feel* the characters feelings; we merely have to take them at their word as we speed forward. It all feels so glossed over.
Partly at fault is the pacing: the film moves at one speed; there are no crests and troughs, from either an emotional or directorial standpoint. We travel in a straight line rather than an arc. Perhaps another director could have taken the same script and injected it with more depth.
It’s a shame more than it is a travesty that the film doesn’t come together. Despite the Falling Snow is packed with potential that is only ever hints at the greatness that could have been. The themes it wants to explore, the intersection of politics and person and the inseparability of the two, are powerful. But as they unfold, they are only inert.
At a run times of only and hour and a half, it all felt like it needed more room to breate: another twenty minutes of development and exploration. Still, in spite of all its flaws, Despite the Falling Snow is an intriguing romantic thriller held afloat by its fine acting and excellent cinematography and production design.
In Theaters & On Demand March 31, 2017.