The Cold War Soviet military provides a high-stakes backdrop for “Firebird,” the true story of a gay romance in a place where homosexuality wasn’t merely shunned and shamed, it was forbidden and persecuted.
It’s a policy that returned under the dictator Putin, which makes this period piece timely as well a reminder of a bitter past.
British stage actor and occasional big screen supporting player (“Kingsman,” “Blood on the Crown”) Tom Prior has co-written and produced himself a breakout star vehicle in which he plays a closeted conscript who finds love with a superior officer on an (occupied) Estonian airbase in the late ’70s.
A fighter squadron stationed there is on high alert during a time of rising tensions with NATO. The Soviet Empire is teetering towards the Afghan debacle that brought it down, and the Sukoi jets stationed here are scrambled at the merest hint of a Western provocation or probe of their defenses.
That’s what brings Lt. Roman Matvejev (Ukrainian actor Oleg Zagorodnii) there. He’s a crack pilot.
But what the clerical workers Sergey (Prior) and Luisa (Diana Pozharskaya) notice is his dashing good looks. They may flirt and talk about the future — Sergey’s enlistment is up in weeks, Luisa is studying for admission to medical school — but artistic-minded Sergey has a secret, something the handsome lieutenant picks up on.
Yes, gaydar was one area where the Soviets had absolute parity with the West.
A shared interest — photography — leads to an invitation to a Roman’s dark room. And where there’s darkness and intimate, hands-on instruction, and needless to say — “chemistry” — signals are sent and received.
Sorry, but the early flirtation scenes have a same-sex-romance corniness that invites a little teasing.
Still, this is going on at an airbase, a perilous place to start an affair.
The lieutenant takes the younger private to his first ballet — Stravinsky’s “Firebird.” Even that turns fraught, as there are checkpoints and base patrols to be evaded. We’ve already seen a “Stop or I’ll shoot” encounter with men on guard duty that Sergey, his friend Volodya (Jake Henderson) and Luisa faced, just for taking a late night dip in an on-base lake. Imagine what will happen if two men in uniform are caught in an intimate same-sex moment.
And naturally, there’s a Major (Margus Prangel) who starts to suspect what one, if not the other, is up to.
There’s something a soap operatic about all this — the “sensitive” young man who longs to go to acting school, the cultured, privileged older man, classical music LPs, the “love triangle” that develops and the threats of betrayal.
But there’s a reason romantic cliches became cliches. This is one way love develops, and as the script is taken from the memoirs of actor Sergey Fetisov, there’s only so much criticism that’s warranted about the waypoints of this romance.
It’s just that film adaptations are reductive processes, and in selecting what to include and what to leave out they make “Firebird” predictable, leaning toward the melodramatic.
Prior wrote himself a splendid part, and engagingly underplays young Sergey. Zagorodnii has great presence and a command of English that could stand him in good stead with casting directors, if he survives Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
Even if the story here is as preordained as the ballet that gives it its title, they’ve made a nicely-detailed reminder of another critical difference between the totalitarian East and the more tolerant West, one that shows us how bad things were and how bad they still are there, and how bad they could be if Russia-loving/emulating politicians in the Free World are allowed to take power.
Rating: R for language and some sexual content
Cast: Tom Prior, Oleg Zagorodnii, Diana Pozharskaya and Margus Prangel
Credits: Directed by Peeter Rebane. scripted by Peeter Rebane and Tom Prior. A Roadside Attractions release on Lionsgate Home Video (June 3).
Running time: 1:47