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A Thrilling Train Journey Across Siberia
Member Name: Hishyeness
Advantages: Well-paced, twisty, suspenseful, well acted and produced.
Disadvantages: One or two plot holes that are easily forgivable.
As a long-time fan of Ben Kingsley, I had meaning to see Transsiberian for a while. I had heard a lot of good things about it, but never quite found the time to sit down and watch it. That opportunity finally came this week when it debuted on Sky, and I have since bought the DVD on the strength of that first look.
"In Russia, we have expression. "With lies, you may go ahead in the world, but you may never go back."
Kingsley plays a hardened and enigmatic detective in the narcotics division of the Russian police force. His beat encompasses the Tran-Siberia Express, a railway service between Beijing and Moscow that takes an epic seven days from start to finish - a route popular with heroin smugglers. We are introduced to his character Detective Grinko very early on, but he doesn't reprise his role until much later in the film.
At the heart of the film are an American couple Jessie (Emily Mortimer) and Roy (Woody Harrelson), returning from a Christian mission in China, who decide to take the railway instead of a flight - partly because of his boyish love of trains, and partly because they fancy the adventure. Early in their journey, they meet another, younger, couple who end up sharing their train compartment.
Abby (Kate Mara) is a displaced young American travelling the world, and her partner is a flirtatious, unsettling Spaniard named Carlos (Eduardo Noriega). Despite their differing backgrounds, they become friends, mostly it seems because there is little to do on the train and they all speak English.
The film meanders on until, at a stop-over in Irkutsk, Roy, distracted by some antique steam locomotives in the rail yard, fails to re-board the train in time. His worried wife decides to get off at the next stop and wait for the next train - which won't arrive until the next afternoon - necessitating an overnight stop at a town in the middle of nowhere.
Her travelling companions insist on alighting with her, ostensibly to keep her company and ensure her safety, although such is the relationship between them, that you're not entirely sure if all is as it seems. The film then takes an unexpected twist - one of many - leading us to into the dark heart of this well-told and absorbing film.
THE MAIN ROLES
Harrelson plays a big-hearted nice guy and all round good egg who initially comes across as a bit naïve and childish, but who ends up being a much deeper and complex character by the end of the film. Despite the changes his character endures, he is the only figure in the film who remains deeply principled throughout, refusing to stray from his moral compass despite the danger to himself and those around him. I found his character easy to relate to, and despite annoying me initially, I grew to like him.
Mortimer, as his wife, is less likeable. It is clear that her heart isn't in the trip. Early on, we are made aware that they want different thing from their relationship. She is clearly indulging her husband's fancy for trains without taking any enjoyment from it herself - at least not the machinery - instead, as a keen photographer, she draws her inspiration from people, rather than objects, and fills her time taking countless photos at every stage of the trip. Despite giving us the initial impression of a clean cut, clean-living woman, something is clearly amiss and we soon find out that she has a much darker side - a history she is clearly not proud of but is struggling to keep in the past. You sense that she is not only questioning why she is where she is, but also why she is married to who she is.
Carlos, as the slightly sleazy and charming latin wide boy, senses this fissure in their relationship and is keen to take advantage. There is an obvious sexual tension between Jessie and Carlos from the beginning - it's hard to miss and it comes so early on that I give nothing away by revealing it here. This commences a "will they/won't they" tease which plays out in a very unexpected fashion. The character is well played by Noriega who does a great job of getting the balance right with his portrayal.
Abby, a Seattle native who has been on the road for two years, is the most enigmatic of the quartet and you are not quite sure how and why she and Carlos got together. Their relationship, although clearly sexual, remains ambiguous to the viewer until much later in the film. Jessie is determined to see the best in her and is convinced that she is a good girl at heart, rather than the "chica mala" she portrays herself as being.
Kingsley, as Detective Grinko, plays his role to perfection. Not only does he speak Russian in the role (almost flawlessly according to a fluent friend), his mannerisms and attitude are also spot on. He goes from brooding to friendly and back in a heartbeat - business and pleasure seem to be the same side of the coin for him. His face and his posture rarely betray his thoughts - a stark contrast to Roy, who wears his heart on his sleeve throughout. I know which one I'd rather play poker against, and it's not the Russian.
Indeed, Transsiberian is a film full of stark contrasts. In wide, outside shots, the train itself is often the only splash of colour against a white, expansive and desolate landscape - broken only by stony mountains and the occasional remote outpost. Some of the scenery is simply stunning. Conversely, the inside of the train is vibrant - if not in colour, then certainly with the hustle and bustle of everyday life.
However, with a finite amount of room, privacy is virtually non-existent, with nosey officials, tea ladies and conductors seemingly unaware of the concept of personal space. This gives an oppressive sense of claustrophobia to proceedings which works well with the atmosphere of tension carefully and thoughtfully built by the director (Brad Anderson - perhaps best known for "The Machinist" released in 2005 starring an emaciated Christian Bale).
With its ensemble cast and focus on people rather than FX and/or action, at times Transsiberian is a well-told story that is fulfilling and frustrating in equal measure - the main frustration - and this is not really a negative - is that just when you think you have it figured out, it outsmarts you.
The relationship between Abby and Carlos. although ambiguous, is believable. However, the rapport between Jessie and Roy is a little less natural, and you find yourself rooting for him a bit more than you do for her. There are one or two moments in the film that make you sit up and think "surely not! - he/she can't be that naïve and stupid", but in retrospect, when you think about the demons driving these characters, it ends up making good (if not perfect) sense.
This neat and tidy little thriller that will keep you guessing for most of its 110 minute running time. Given some of the content (violence and sex scenes) the 15 certificate is just about right. It is currently selling for £3.98 on Amazon, and for that price, it's almost as cheap to buy as it is to rent. Unfortunately, the film and some commentaries is all you get for your money, but it's hard to complain given the price.
Transsiberian is an entertaining, well-paced suspense thriller. It has some flaws, and takes some time to build up to its payoff - but your patience will be rewarded. It's a likeable film which makes some of the plot holes easy to overlook, especially given the superior acting of the main protagonists. As a fan of Kingsley, I was not disappointed.
© Hishyeness 2010
Summary: An entertaining night in with Kingsley & Co.