Film Threat archive logo


By Phil Hall | October 22, 2001

In 1994, Russian filmmaker Nikita Mikhalkov (who had already established his reputation with such acclaimed films as “A Slave of Love” and “Dark Eyes”) presented “Burnt by the Sun,” a searing drama of the Stalinist era which earned an Academy Award for Best Foreign-Language Film. To date, it is the only film from the post-Soviet Russian film industry to win an Oscar.
Mikhalkov followed the triumph of “Burnt by the Sun” with the expensive epic “The Barber of Siberia.” But while “Burnt by the Sun” was greeted with critical acclaim and awards, “The Barber of Siberia” debuted in Europe in 1999 to overwhelmingly negative reaction. Despite Mikhalkov’s reputation, the film has never been theatrically released in the United States. “The Barber of Siberia” finally has a chance to greet American audiences through a special screening at the New York Festival of Russian Films. Unfortunately, its appearance proves that its exile from American screens is more than deserved.

Quite frankly, “The Barber of Siberia” is perhaps the worst feature film created by any major current international filmmaker. The film is such a total mess that it presents a journalistic challenge to even conceive how to run an inventory its failings. Indeed, the film is home to a surplus of embarrassments: terrible direction, a stupid script, horrendous acting, ugly production design, and such an acute lack of charm and intelligence that it is truly astonishing to conceive how an artist of Mikhalkov’s talent could ever imagine such a debacle.

The bulk of “The Barber of Siberia” takes place in 1885 and focuses on the self-confident American Jane McCracken Callahan (played by British actress Julia Ormond with a grating faux-American honk-accent), who travels to Russia to meet her eccentric father (Richard Harris, with a Santa Claus white beard and shifting accent). It seems strange old dad is an inventor who is trying to get financing to complete a tree-harvesting machine which he calls the Barber of Siberia. During her train ride to Moscow, Jane makes the acquaintance of a light-headed military cadet named Andrey Tolstoy (Oleg Menshikov), whom she proceeds to get drunk with champagne. Andrey attends a military school where the emphasis seems to be on pranks rather than drills, and it is not uncommon for the wacky cadets to overpolish a dance floor so everyone slides and falls or to spend an excess amount of time rehearsing “The Marriage of Figaro” in drag. (This may explain why the Bolsheviks had a relatively easy time taking over in 1917.)

Through plot contrivances which are too labored to recount here, Jane is somewhat responsible for Andrey being assigned to the Siberian wastelands. Needless to say, Jane’s amusement with Andrey eventually turns to love, and love turns to a certain two-person endeavor which helps to keep warm on any night, Siberian or otherwise. The end result of this liaison is actually the secondary focus of the film: “The Barber of Siberia” is occasionally narrated in a letter to Jane and Andrey’s son, who grows up to be an American soldier circa 1905…but who finds himself stuck wearing a gas mask during a hot summer boot camp training because he won’t follow his sergeant’s orders and badmouth Mozart (don’t ask about that plotline).

A main component in the failure of “The Barber of Siberia” comes in its central casting. As a youthful military cadet, Oleg Menshikov is way too old to be even faintly credible in this part. The actor gamely tries to make up for his obvious miscasting by giving his role an intense burst of zany gestures, frantic head-bobs and wild eye rolls. This doesn’t so much represent the joys of youth as it suggests Menshikov is somehow channeling all three Ritz Brothers simultaneously. He is not helped in the least by Julia Ormond; her flat non-performance as the thoroughly modern American is so painfully inept that it clearly shows why she was unable to make a headway in Hollywood in the mid-90s despite the excessive publicity in her favor. The woman, to be blunt, cannot act and having someone of such woeful non-talent at the core of a major epic is equal to pouring sugar into a gas tank. Richard Harris tries gamely to ham things up, but there is too little of him to make the film work.

Ultimately, however, the film’s problems belong to Mikhalkov. The direction seems to be inspired by late Fellini, complete with heavy-handed surrealism and sight gags mixed with excessively grotesque characters positioned amid atrocious decor. As a director, Mikhalkov has his actors spit out their lines at rapid speed and rush about as if trying to break a speed record of some kind. Often the film has the appearance of a bad silent movie projected at the wrong speed, with a rush of exaggerated activity culminating in nothing.

The script is not much help here. As penned by Mikhalkov and Rustam Ibragimbekov, it cannot make up its mind if it should be a comedy, a travelogue or a melodrama and its attempts to ride these three rails at once results in a hodgepodge. The film’s lapses into slapstick creates more groans than giggles (especially when the tree-harvesting machine is turned on and wrecks the inventor’s workshop) and its characters are so lacking in dimension that the occasional twists into serious matter (an anarchist group’s attack on a Moscow street, the news of Andrey’s exile) seem to belong from scenes from another production that were haphazardly shoehorned into the print. In watching “The Barber of Siberia,” it is impossible to realize this was created by the same man who conceived the extraordinary “Burnt by the Sun.” Talk about an alpha and omega!

“The Barber of Siberia” was clearly intended for American release, as much of the film is in English including scenes which have no reason being shot in the language (why are the Tsar and Tsarina bickering in English?). However, no U.S. distributor has shown any interest in picking it up for release, which is a tribute to the perspicacity of the various directors of acquisitions within the American film industry. “The Barber of Siberia” is a wild Russian turkey that does not need to fly amok in American theaters.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

  1. Wowow says:

    Omg get your facts right… the tsar and his wife talked to each other in English because she was from Sweden or something… she’s foreign

  2. Dave Adams says:

    In my Friday state of mind I got to daydreaming about great art and film. Barber of Siberia came to mind and I was fondly remembering the masterpiece that several scenes of that film are. I decided to google and see if anyone considers barber of Siberia a missed classic. Lo and behold I came to this review.

    I am more than willing to read opposing viewpoints. I appreciated to some degree this authors criticisms as a way to look at something I enjoy more critically. But like many here, I just can’t get my head into a place where this film is anything but a masterpiece. I’ll go further. This film is what I wish all films were; beautiful to look at and sustained by charm, grand scope, love and tragedy.

    Incidentally I saw this film on my honeymoon in 1999 in the Champs Elysees in Paris. I now own he film on DVD and re-watch it any time I need to remember that there is still beauty in the world.

  3. Steve Meikle says:

    I was pleased when I came across a clip of this movie which was a review in front of presumably Tsar Alexander III.

    I had never heard of the film so I googled it and found the full version on youtube.

    As a rule I ignore critics, who I find to be full of their own arrogance, keen to nitpick and complain about trivia.

    But as an ardent Russophil (my Russian emigre friends tell me I have a good knowledge of Russian History), I found the film quite silly, more slapstick than epic. I could only stomach about half an hour of it, and believe me I do have a taste for the Russian epic, the longer the better; and I did earn the respect of my Russian friends for standing right through a Russian Orthodox Pascha service

    Doctor Zhivago or Bondartchuk’s War and Peace this film is not.

    It may have made sense in the end but the delivery and style was just too silly to endure

  4. Justin says:

    This page is quite possibly the worst film review ever written, by someone who I can only imagine is not qualified to write reviews due to very poor understanding of cinematic arts.
    Introducing small plot fragments out-of-context, with a clear admission of not understanding them, only goes to show me the author of this review can not understand plots that go deeper than a Saturday morning child’s cartoon.

    For the rest of us, who can grasp human nature and emotions, all these plot fragments come together and make perfect sense in a rather gripping tale that explores human nature, emotion, and social class. “The Barber Of Siberia” really is a fantastic film for those who can appreciate a melodramatic masterpiece.

    As for never having been popular in American cinemas, it’s common-knowledge (among those with worldly knowledge) that the lowest-common-denominator of American culture generally shuns any cinematic or theatrical productions that do NOT have “bubble-gum feel-good pop style” happy endings. And as we all know, the large corporate cinema/theatre chains are interested in what is most profitable; often that’s catering to the lowest-common-denominator, and not necessarily furthering the arts.

  5. JG says:

    If anyone stumbles across this stupid website looking for a review of this film and winds up reading this review then I’m here to give you some bad news. You just wasted a few minutes of your life you’ll never get back and possibly you will miss out on a great film.

    The reviewer clearly hasn’t seen the movie and is a complete asshat although hopefully it was some computer generated review, it’s just a waste of text.

    The movie is worth watching as an American I highly recommend it as it speaks to the cultural misunderstandings between Russians and Americans and teaches us a lot about ourselves and how not so different we are!

  6. Net says:

    If you think about it, there is a lot of grotesque in the Russian culture itself. So, is it really late Fellini or the grotesque of the Russian culture? “Light-headed” Andrey… How do you know if he is “light-headed” and not a naive romantic young man (something people seem to have lost nowadays) who falls in love, maybe, for the first time. And, by the way, Jane and her “eccentric father” are not daughter and father as it turns out. A lot more was overlooked in this article and despite the fact that you used such adjectives as “terrible”, “stupid”, “horrendous”, “ugly” and so on to describe the movie, you still wrote a LONG article about it. Fascinating, isn’t it?

  7. ABT says:

    The film is fabulous, you either are completely ignorant about Russian literature and culture or have a serious taste problem. I am sorry for you that you cannot understand and appreciate this piece of art. On the other hand you like Burnt by the Sun which explains a lot why you cannot. It is one of the most overestimated films, especially if you compare it to a masterpiece such as Destiny of a Man.

  8. Nick says:

    IF YOU CAND UNDERSTAND THAT- YOU ARE EXTREMELY STYPED!!!! If you have never seen a Russian dramas that do not even try to criticize them! They lifted not stupid! they contain historical and spiritual significance! this is not a dull film for idiots who are ready to watch garbage million times! At present, this film will see only the Russian people!

  9. Mike says:

    never read so much bullshit i my life, have you even watched the movie?

Join our Film Threat Newsletter

Newsletter Icon