Enemy at the Gates Review
The recent glut of war films can be put down to either a surge of interest in the Second World War, or a lack of imagination on the part of filmmakers. In all fairness, Saving Private Ryan and The Thin Red Line were highly acclaimed, and even the hideously underrated Pearl Harbor more than delivered in terms of mind-blowing spectacle. However, most war films tend to be highly American in outlook and nature, and ignore the fascinating aspects of WW2 that apparently took place before Pearl Harbour, such as the Battle of Britain, or even during, such as the battle of Stalingrad. The historian Anthony Beevor's book is highly recommended if you're actually interested in the period, but Enemy at the Gates is a more than adequate action film, as long as its occasional failings are tolerated.
The plot is a strange combination of European arthouse precision and Hollywood sentiment. The European part (and the good storyline) concerns a young soldier called Vassili (Law), who is an expert sniper, and his ensuing battles against the Nazi's top marksman, Major Konig (Harris), with his victories being used as propaganda for the desperate and besieged Russian forces by Khruschev (Hoskins). The American part (and the weak storyline) is a love triangle between Vassili, his best friend Danilov (Fiennes) and another soldier (Weisz). Violence ensues, unsurprisingly.
In a sense, Enemy at the Gates fails on quite a few levels. The love story is woefully unconvincing, with Weisz doing little more than standing around looking slightly dirty, and Fiennes only really coming into his own in a couple of scenes. It's not as extended as Pearl Harbor's 90-minute opus, but nor is it as entertaining. The other flaw is the clunking script, which frequently sounds as if it was written in another language and then translated into English; this is highly likely, given that Annaud and his co-writer are both French. That said, it often feels less like conversation than oration, and jars a lot.
However, the film is dragged from adequacy to near-excellence by the war scenes. From the stunningly realised opening scene, which outdoes even Saving Private Ryan in terms of bullets and gore, to the incredibly tense scenes in which Harris and Law stalk one another in ruined buildings, it becomes clear very quickly that Annaud's skills are largely visual. Sensibly,the film doesn't overuse the Saving Private Ryan 'jerk-o-cam' technique, but it doesn't glamourise the appalling horror of Stalingrad either, with the Russians shown (fairly accurate, actually) as a downtrodden people who are only too happy to look beyond their Communist principles to embrace a man who is a genuine hero.
The performances are variable. Harris is easily the stand-out here, in a perfectly judged performance as a man who has seen appalling horror, and no longer believes in the justice of what he is doing, even as he kills without remorse. Law is also very good as Vassili, although the Mockney accent he adopts does jar somewhat (although, to be fair, the English accents don't sound nearly as bad as the thought of the cast trying and failing with comedy Russian accents). Weisz and Fiennes- fine actors both- are somewhat wasted, but Hoskins is fun as Khruschev, in his first decent part for a while.
As the sum of its parts, this isn't that successful a film. However, for a film to contain some of the finest battle and sniping scenes ever seen does go a long way to outweighing the script and plotting problems that it does have. Now all we have to do is wait for Pearl Harbor...
Paramount have done a splendid job here. The colour scheme of the film is, unsurprisingly, dark and grainy, and the transfer preserves this perfectly, keeping the look of the film akin to Saving Private Ryan, albeit without the over-obvious use of bleaching techniques to convey realism. There is no sign of print damage, edge enhancement or anything that will detract from the film. A fine effort, with a mark only being lost because of some fleeting softness in the transfer in some of the early scenes.
War films tend to make excellent test discs, and this one is no exception. The big surprise here is that the surrounds aren't just used aggressively in the big battle scenes, but throughout the film, so the atmosphere is conveyed exceptionally well sonically, as well as visually, with the scenes in the Russian barracks allowing you to hear every cough and splutter, just as the early battle scenes let every bullet sound forth. The absence of a DTS track is slightly missed, but the 5.1 mix does a fine job. A side-by-side listen to this and Ryan revealed that Ryan just had the edge, but this is certainly highly impressive. James Horner's excellent score is also well showcased by the surrounds, and it's a shame an isolated option for it wasn't provided.
This is, sadly, where the disc disappoints. The featurette and interviews are both heavily promotional in nature, with the historical background glossed over to the point of incomprehensibility, and the usual backslapping rubbish being prevalent. Slightly more impressive are the deleted scenes, a comparative rarity for Paramount, with a nice spot of Khruschev talking to an unseen Stalin on the telephone while bombs crash around his head. A trailer rounds off the extras.
Enemy at the Gates is flawed, but it's still a good, well made war film, with some utterly terrific set pieces. Paramount's disc provides superlative picture and sound quality, but unfortunately rather less impressive extras. Recommended for all war film enthusiasts.