Is Ledokol a Biopic, or a Metaphor for Modern Russia?

Hitting Moscow’s screens to coincide with America’s Deep Water Horizon, a dramatisation of the 2010 oil spill from an off shore drill, Ledokol (Ice-breaker) is a Russian disaster flick brought to us courtesy of the forty-something director Nikolay Khomeriki (who some cinema buffs will already know for the film 977). And the good news is that this film is already pulling in a larger audience than Tom Cruise’s latest (Jack Reacher 2).

Filmed with the aid of a real life atomic icebreaker, the motion picture cost ten million U.S dollars and they shot it over a three and a half month period in such Arctic areas as Murmansk and Khibiny.

Giving overdue recognition to some forgotten heroes, as well as lifting the lid on the obscure way of life of icebreaker crewmen, the movie takes as its inspiration the ill- fated voyage of the ship Mikhail Somov in 1985. On the way to supplying scientific bases in Antarctica, the ship ended up becalmed in packed ice for a perilous 133 days with 53 crewmembers aboard. `Soviet Research Ship in Antarctic Ice` – was the New York Times headline from June of that year.

In the film, the ship is re-christened Mikhail Gomorov. With its strengthened hull, ice-breaking design, and sheer power, this behemoth is one of the stars of story. The other star – fresh from his role in the sumptuous period drama The Duellist –is Pyotr Petrovich Fydorov. With his wiry and dark good looks, however, he seems out of place as the captain of twenty or so bearded beefy, chunky sweater wearing crewmembers.

It is not long into the film before the villain of the piece emerges from the icy depths in the form of a monstrous iceberg. They are unable to negotiate their way round this and soon the crew find themselves stranded in a sea of ice. Then follows a string of calamities. A rescue helicopter arrives with replacement staff and a new captain. This catches fire in the process of landing and leaves the new arrivals stranded on the ship together with those they were intended to take over from. As ice is somewhat static, much of the film’s drama arises from the crew becoming more and more mutinous towards this unpopular new presence.


Some suspenseful moments do appear, however, in this 12 Certificate movie. The first captain, on an on-foot expedition to get their bearings, plummets down an icy labyrinth. His only way to get help is to rely on a flare, but in the process he also upsets an angry walrus.

This is an all male story, and one in which (in contrast to most disaster movies) the events occur from the film’s opening. To provide some human interest the makers have added a mischievous ginger dog to the mix. Two unconvincing female subplots have been shoehorned into the plot too. Back in St Petersburg, one crew member’s wife has to un undergo a caesarean to give birth, while the first captain’s wife is a fearless journalist who gets embroiled in their rescue on board another nuclear ice-breaker.

Eighties details abound: we see electric typewriters, puffball skirts, a reel-to-reel film projector (showing The Diamond Arm) and even a Rubrics Cube (which in fact has a role in the plot). Also giving it all a retro feel is the strings based orchestral score. That said, this is more than a jolly Soviet style film about camaraderie and resilience: when the crew indulge in a spot of communal folk singing, the replacement captain responds by smashing their acoustic guitar.


Whereas this year’s other major disaster movie – Ekipazh – was glitzy and sensationalist and set its sights on the present day (and on an international market), Ledokol is all -Russian and grittily realistic and looks back, or be it with some ambivalence.

A telling sequence of the film comes right at the end. The rescued survivors are enjoying the sun with a barbecue on the deck of the ship. One of them holds aloft a copy of Pravda. Thumbing through the pages, they pass a picture of the newly inaugurated Gorbachev before they get to the account of their ordeal. Then they cheer for the captains – both of them. For the first time the stern replacement captain allows himself to smile. The music of Kino sounds. The credits roll.

About Edward Crabtree 21 Articles
Exiled English provincial trying not to get old too quick by conducting a war of words with banality.

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