Film review of “Russian Doll” (Australia, 2001)

With the imminent launch of the Cockatoo Island Film Festival – an astonishingly lavish production commencing in Sydney Harbour on 24 October 2012 – it is time to publish my review of “Russian Doll”.  This film was directed by Stavros Kazantzidis, and written by Alanah Zitserman and Kazantzidis – the two Cockatoo Island Film Festival founders.

This film review of “Russian Doll” appeared in the Australian Jewish News on 8 June 2001, and stars stars Hugo Weaving, David Wenham, Rebecca Frith, Sacha Horler and Natalia Novikova.

The modern Australian-Jewish experience is not exactly a topic which is reflected on the big screen very often, so the release of “Russian Doll” was of particular interest.  “Russian Doll” is a Bondi-based romantic comedy, the product of a collaboration by Russian-born Allanah Zitserman (who came to Australia as a refugee in 1980) and her film-making partner, Cyprus-born Stavros Kazantzidis.

Hugo Weaving (“Proof”, “The Matrix”, also a co-producer on the film) plays Harvey, a (Catholic) neurotic and morose private investigator and aspiring detective fiction writer.  The bread and butter of his business is husband/wife cheating cases (some neat set-up scenes here reminiscent of Gene Hackman in “The Conversation”), but Harvey soon discovers that one of the adulterers he is snooping upon is in fact his own partner.  Harvey, already suffering from a self-esteem problem, is devastated.

Meanwhile, young, pretty Russian-Jewish Katia (played Russian born NIDA graduate Natalia Novikova) has arrived in Sydney as a “mail order bride” set up through a Jewish matchmaking agency.  She arrives at her intended’s flat and finds him dead from an apparent heart attack.  Alone in the big city, she is be-friended by Ethan (David Wenham, of “Sea Change” fame), who is apparently happily married to Miriam (Rebecca Frith), and they soon become lovers.  After months of the secret affair, Ethan is keen to keep Katia in Australia legally so approaches his best friend Harvey to propose a marriage of convenience with Katia.  Traditional values Harvey is appalled, but soon succumbs to Ethan’s offer of financial support that will allow him to pursue his writing career full-time.  So Katia moves in with Harvey in anticipation of their fake wedding.

A number of unexpected problems arise:  even though it is to be a fake one, Katia still wants a Jewish wedding; Miriam meets Katia and helps her plan a big event; and Katia’s noisy lifestyle interferes with Harvey’s desire for peace and quiet.  Along the way, Katia introduces Harvey to Sydney’s Russian community, and he meets Latvian Liza (Sacha Horler), who in turn falls for him.  As the web of relationships becomes even more tangled, the wedding day approaches.

Although shot for a miniscule budget, “Russian Doll” is frequently funny, and remarkably and surprisingly entertaining.  It had two Australian Film Institute nominations:  for best original screenplay (which it won), and best supporting actress for Horler.  The script is light, the direction and editing by Kazantzidis – who obviously understands the migrant experience – is deft; and the performances are enjoyable, particularly anchored by Novikova’s charming and very convincing Katia.  “Russian Doll” breaks no new directorial or thematic ground, and there are lots of hints of Woody Allen influences (although nothing wrong with that).

The pleasures in “Russian Doll” (particularly for eastern suburbs Sydney-siders) are in seeing the familiar on screen.  Unlike the oh-so-obvious Sydney settings of “Mission Impossible II”, the world of Katia, Harvey and Ethan is a warm, intimate and everyday one (including scenes shot at Temple Emanuel Woollahra).  And this is also a very Jewish movie:  just about every character except Harvey is Jewish, with the Jewish elements flowing naturally from the script.  It makes us realise that the Australian-Jewish experience certainly is one with modern stories worth telling on screen.  Rebecca Frith does her Jewish character well, although many may debate whether David Wenham’s performance feels Jewish enough.  One major plot criticism:  no rabbi in Australia would marry the Jewish Katia to the Catholic Harvey without a formal conversion.  That certainly would have provided some interesting script possibilities.

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