The Admiral

English Title: The Admiral

Original Title: Admiral

Country of Origin: Russia

Studio: Channel One, Film Direction, Dago Productions

Director: Andrei Kravchuk

Producer(s): Dzhanik Faiziev, Anatolii Maksimov, Dmitrii Iurkov

Screenplay: Vladimir Valutskii, Zoia Kudria

Cinematographer: Igor' Griniakin

Art Director: Mariia Turskaia, Aleksandr Zagoskin

Editor: Tom Rolf

Runtime: 124 minutes

Genre: Biopic, Historical

Language: Russian, French

Starring/Cast: Konstantin Khabenskii, Elizaveta Boiarskaia, Sergei Bezrukov, Vladislav Vetrov

Year: 2008

Volume: Russian

We are introduced to Admiral Aleksandr Kolchak (1874–1920) relatively late in his career, in 1916, when he is in command of a Russian ship in the Baltic Sea during World War I. Thanks to his calm and quick thinking under fire, a more powerful German warship is sunk. At a celebration soon thereafter in Finland, he meets and falls in love with Anna Timireva, the wife of one of his subordinate officers. She reciprocates, and the two maintain a chaste, long-distance affair as the tumultuous events of the day send them to various places inside and outside the crumbling Russian empire. Kolchak, sent into exile by the head of the Provisional Government in mid-1917, returns to Russia after the October Revolution to fight the Bolsheviks. He appoints himself supreme ruler of Siberia, the base for his campaign against the Reds in the Russian Civil War. Anna finally leaves her husband and joins Kolchak permanently in Siberia, but the Whites suffer defeat after defeat. Kolchak is arrested by the Bolsheviks and shot in 1920. An epilogue shows Anna as an extra on the set of Fedor Bondarchuk’s film War and Peace in 1964, looking wistfully at a ballroom scene.

Five years in the making, sophomore director Andrei Kravchuk’s The Admiral is a well-produced mix of epic history and romantic melodrama that recalls David Lean’s Dr Zhivago, with its wartime trains, constantly re-separated lovers and anti-Bolshevik message, and, ultimately, James Cameron’s Titanic, with its fatefully truncated romance and epilogue showing the woman’s life decades after her lover’s watery demise. Unlike those two blockbusters, however, The Admiral is also a biopic, and one that flirts with hagiography even before Admiral Kolchak’s martyred body is thrown into a cross-shaped hole in the ice (conveniently left over from a recent church baptism ceremony) by his godless Bolshevik executioners. In part the thoroughly uncritical portrait of Kolchak is compensatory; for so long, and for obvious ideological reasons, White Army leaders could only be pilloried in the Russian media, especially cinema, the main vehicle for populating the official dramatis personae of historical heroes and villains. The few detectable character flaws in Kravchuk’s representation of Kolchak come at moments when the admiral’s penchant for self-aggrandizement comes to the fore. For example, his repeated assurances that the city of Irkutsk – effectively already firmly in the hands of the Reds – will be secure the moment he personally arrives, suggest that he views himself as the ultimate repository of Russian imperial sovereignty. The scene in which he takes a solemn and religiously toned oath before his troops, as ‘Supreme Ruler of Russia’, at a time when the Whites’ eastern front was thousands of kilometres east of Moscow, similarly suggest an unjustifiably inflated self-image. Most of the battle scenes showcase his own bravery, rather than that of his sailors and soldiers (an exception is the scene in which the White soldiers, having run out of ammunition, attach their bayonets and charge out of the trenches directly towards the Red machine guns).

Yet criticizing the film’s lack of nuance and dramatic license is, in a way, not entirely fair. The biopic genre arguably lends itself to such one-sided portrayals, and The Admiral is certainly less revisionist and nationalistic than other post-Soviet Russian historical epics such as Nikita Mikhalkov’s Barber of Siberia (1998) or Vladimir Khotinenko’s 1612: A Chronicle of the Time of Troubles (2007). It is also important to remember that Russian filmmakers are still in the process of creating a profitable, popular national cinema, a project in which watchable, mainstream films are essential. In this respect, Kravchuk’s film was a success, as it represented another benchmark hit in the resurgent Russian film industry, which began recovering from a dismal decade (both financially and artistically) early in the new millennium. The Admiral had a budget of $20 million, extremely large by Russian standards, and earned an impressive profit. Much of the budget was spent on CGI, which certainly shows in the impressive naval-battle scenes. The wide-screen potential of the Siberian countryside, staple of so many Russian films before and after the fall of the Soviet Union, is also used to full effect.  

Konstantin Khabenskii plays Kolchak with a reserved propriety, even in the romantic scenes, which adds to the sense of Kolchak as a force of history rather than a human character. Khabenskii has become a sort of Russian Harrison Ford, having starred in no less than four of the largest-grossing Russian films of the new millennium, all of which, except for The Admiral, directed by Timur Bekmambetov: Night Watch (2004), Day Watch (2006) and the sequel to the 1970s favourite The Irony of Fate (2007).

Author of this review: Seth Graham