Letter to Brezhnev Review

Liverpool, the mid 1980s, where dead-end work in factories is for most people the only alternative to the dole. Elaine (Alexandra Pigg) and Teresa (Margi Clarke) are two young women out for the night. They meet two Russian sailors on shore leave, Peter (Peter Firth) and Sergei (Alfred Molina). Teresa is simply looking for a night of sex and fun with Sergei, but Elaine is looking for something more. After a night and the following day, Peter and Sergei have to return to their ship. But Elaine is desperate to be reunited with Peter…

Letter to Brezhnev is a film made, in director Chris Bernard’s words, with “Super 16mm, three lights and fuck all budget”. The first name after the title in the opening credits is that of writer Frank Clarke, and it’s his script, backed up with highly engaging lead performances, that makes the film overcome the obvious budgetary limitations and rather flat direction. There’s an ear for language in Clarke’s screenplay that makes the film a delight to listen to. Similar to Roddy Doyle’s ear for working-class Dublin speech in his novels and filmscripts, the rhythms of Scouse talk, full of natural wit and attitude and highly profane, give Letter to Brezhnev real flavour and a hard edge to what is basically a very simple, fairytale romance. As Margi Clarke points out, many of the slang phrases in the script are actually made up, but you wouldn’t notice as they are so convincing. It’s a screenplay that might not have got past Hollywood script editors as it doesn’t conform to the prevalent three-act formula: it’s more like a long first act with a shorter second. It’s interesting to note that the film is a disguised gay movie, partly inspired by Frank Clarke and Chris Bernard meeting some Russian sailors on shore leave. It’s not difficult to sense a gay sensibility at work, not least the out-and-out kitsch of the very Disneyesque star that Peter points out to Elaine.

Although they are billed after the men, the film belongs to the two female leads, and it’s a pity that the cinema industry has so underused Alexandra Pigg and Margi Clarke since. Elaine is a heroine to root for, and Teresa makes for a staunch best friend, with “a degree in men”, and both actresses do their roles full justice. Peter Firth (his baldness visible in other films hidden by a sailor’s cap, but still good-looking enough to make Elaine’s attraction plausible) gets top billing as he was the most established name in the cast, but his is in many ways the weakest performance, seemingly inhibited by the Russian accent he has to adopt. Alfred Molina is the same age as Firth, but he had only just started to make films (beginning with an appearance in the opening sequence of Raiders of the Lost Ark) and it would be two years later, with his Kenneth Halliwell in Prick Up Your Ears that most people noticed how good an actor he could be, even though he was actually miscast in that film. But, with hindsight, you can spot his quality in Letter to Brezhnev. Molina has very few lines and most of them are in unsubtitled Russian, and has not much to do apart from conveying a jolly Russian virility. But as Chris Bernard points out, his eyes are very expressive and tell a story that’s not really in the script.

It says a lot for the writing and acting that it survives the film’s lack of visual flair. What there is comes from the costumes and production design, with strong reds dominating the first hour and cooler blues coming forth in the last half-hour. Chris Bernard often has his camera too far back, and sometimes seems content to follow the action in master shots. To be fair, the minuscule budget may have had a lot to do with this. This remains his only cinema feature. The British film industry has several directors who made one or two features in the 1980s and have since worked mainly in television, and Bernard is one of them.

This DVD is encoded for Region 2 only. One thing that is worth pointing out is that it has been re-edited from the cinema release, losing a couple of minutes. I don’t know why this was done – there’s no indication of this anywhere on the DVD, only on the BBFC website – and I couldn’t say what was missing as my only previous viewing of the film was in the cinema on the original release. If anyone knows anything more, please let me know and I’ll update the review.

First the bad news: the transfer. Letter to Brezhnev was shot in Super 16mm and blown up to 35mm for the cinema. Like many low-budget British films of the time, the intended aspect ratio was 1.75:1, so you’d expect an anamorphic transfer in the 16:9 ratio, wouldn’t you? Well, no – this DVD is full-frame, open-matte. To be precise, this is in the “analogue widescreen TV” ratio of 14:9, giving very thin black lines at top and bottom, but I suspect that may be due to the film being hardmatted in camera. Even so, this would have not been so bad but the original materials used have clearly seen better days: there are occasional scratches, spots and reel-change marks, and a lot of grain. Contrast and shadow detail are very poor in some scenes, particularly the club scenes early on. I don’t doubt some of this was unavoidable, given the circumstances of the film’s making and also its age, and the results are still watchable, but overall this is a very disappointing transfer.

The soundtrack is Dolby Surround, replicating the sound mix of the theatrical version. It’s a very basic track, pretty much mono with the surround being used for music and the occasional directional effect and the dialogue is always clear, bearing in mind the broad Scouse accents, not to mention Firth's Russian one. Unfortunately there are no subtitles, which is bad news for anyone likely to struggle with this. There’s one burnt-in subtitle in the film, in the short scene in Brezhnev’s office. There are fifteen chapter stops.

If the picture leaves something to be desired, at least the distributors have made an effort with the extras. For starters, there are three separate commentaries, from Chris Bernard, Alexandra Pigg and Margi Clarke. Presumably scheduling difficulties prevented them from recording one commentary together, which might well have been preferable. They’re all quite listenable, with Bernard’s the most informative and Clarke’s the funniest. But there are quite a few gaps, and several places where the speaker simply reacts to what’s onscreen. Perhaps the three tracks could have been edited together?

“From Liverpool with Love” is a behind-the-scenes featurette running 15:11. The poster design is laid over the full-frame video footage, and there’s a commentary from Chris Bernard which gives the material more shape than most behind-the-scenes work. There are also two reports from British TV, firstly Joan Bakewell interviewing Frank Clarke and the cast (12:29) and a report from North West Tonight (3:22) as the film was being shot. Interviewees here include Chris Bernard and Peter Firth, the latter filmed standing next to an obviously shivering Alexandra Pigg. All of this material was shot on video (and 1980s analogue video at that) and is absolutely riddled with artefacts. The stills gallery comprises twenty small pictures, two per page, none of which can be expanded for a better look. There are biographies of the writer, director, producer Janet Goddard, the four leading actors and even poster and credits designer Jamie Reid. These are presented as rolling text, though I would have preferred separate pages you could navigate at your own pace. A colour booklet is listed on the packaging but, apart from a chapter list, much of it consists of advertising for C’est la Vie’s other releases.

Letter to Brezhnev is a Little Movie That Did, and it remains fresh and funny today. It’s a pity that C’est la Vie have done a commendable job with providing extras but have rather neglected the presentation of the main feature.

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