Based on a true story, Firebird is a heartbreaking queer romance is set on an air base in Soviet controlled Estonia in the late 70s. It centres around a young soldier who embarks on a clandestine romance with a handsome fighter pilot.
The film is based on the 1996 memoir written by Russian actor Segei Fetisov and has been adapted to the screen by director Peeter Rebane and British actor and co-producer Tom Prior and it explores the homophobic attitudes and sexual politics of the oppressive Soviet era.
Prior also stars in this drama taking the lead role as Sergei, a handsome young soldier who is serving out his mandatory two year military service. He has a friendship group with colleagues Volodja (Jake Thomas Henderson in his first film role) and Luiza (Diana Pozharskaya). The three pal around together and even go swimming in the nearby lake. Luzia is infatuated with Sergei but is unaware that his interests lie in a different direction, and he has so far managed to keep his sexual orientation a secret.
But then a new hot shot fighter pilot arrives on the base, and he catches Sergei’s eye. Roman (Ukrainian actor Oleg Zagorodnii) is to be flying missions, escorting nuclear weapons into Russia. Sergei is appointed to drive him around the base and serve as his assistant. The pair bond over a mutual love of photography and theatre. After Roman takes Segei to see a performance of the ballet The Firebird, the friendship becomes more physical and intimate. Roman encourages Sergei to pursue his passion for acting and theatre. But under Soviet law, homosexuality was illegal and carried heavy penalties, and Roman could lose his prestige. The pair keep their relationship a secret until an anonymous letter is passed on to the base’s commander, and Roman finds himself in the crosshairs of the officious KGB colonel Zverev (Margus Prangel), who has the power to destroy Roman’s career.
Segei leaves the military after his two years are up and heads off to Moscow to study theatre, but he finds it hard to forget Roman. And when the film jumps ahead four years to follow Sergei in Moscow the drama loses much of its tension and urgency. Roman marries Luzia and settles into a normal routine to allay Zverev’s suspicions.
Firebird is the first fiction feature from director Peeter Rebane. He previously directed many music videos and concert films like Robbie Williams: Live In Tallinn; and produced the Eurovision Song Contest and shows for artists like Elton John, Sting, Madonna. This was something of a passion project for Rebane, and he handles the material here with restraint and sensitivity.
Rebane draws solid performances from his cast. Prior (Kingsman: The Secret Service) is good as Segei and provides the film with a strong and likeable central focus. There is a smouldering chemistry between him and Zagorodnii, who manages to bring his conflicted character to life and make him a three dimensional character. Prangel has an ominous and threatening presence as the humourless KGB colonel.
This is a handsome looking production, and the film has been beautifully shot by Rebane’s regular cinematographer Mait Maekius, who manages to find beauty amidst the bleak sterile Soviet architecture of Tallinn.
Firebird is in limited release
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Greg King has had a life long love of films. He has been reviewing popular films for over 15 years. Since 1994, he has been the film reviewer for BEAT magazine. His reviews have also appeared in the Herald Sun newspaper, S-Press, Stage Whispers, and a number of other magazines, newspapers and web sites. Greg contributes to The Blurb on film