Daniel Hooper

Nikita Mikhalkov's 1994 Russian film Burnt by the Sun is set a world away from the cold barren Soviet wasteland often depicted in cinema. The lush green countryside is host to Colonel Sergei Kotov (played by the multitalented director Nikita Mikhalkov) and his family and friends as they leisurely spend their summer in nature. Kotov, a war hero, is portrayed as a heroic character as he rides horseback to stop tanks and planes destroying the local fields. A Wild West-style hero of the East bloc, Kotov is also a devout and loving family man, with wife Marusya (Ingeborga Dapkunayte) and daughter Nadia (Nadezhda Mikhalkov) – a family so close that they sauna together. As wife and daughter stare lovingly at their hero Kotov, you feel the bliss this family experience and sense it can't last.

Their time is peaceful until the unannounced appearance of Marusya's cousin Dmitry (Oleg Menshikov), a charmer with a secret or two and of whom Kotov is rightfully suspicious. The setting may be idyllic but the shadow of brutal Soviet rule hangs over them. Tanks roll across the landscape, days by the lake are spoiled by military training routines and, most metaphorically, a balloon carries a banner bearing the iconic image of Stalin, as if he's watching over the landscape.

The performances by the actors are excellent and relationships between the central characters are believable, with the father/daughter relationship between Kotov and Nadia particularly tender. Dapkunayte's Marusya is suitably loving of Kotov and haunted by the reappearance Dmitry and Mikhalkov's performance as the hero is enjoyably courageous, but special mention should go to Oleg Menshikov, whose performance as Dmitry is charismatic but always sinister, and to Nadezhda Mikhalkov, who encapsulates the youthful naïvet? of Nadia.

Burnt by the Sun won the Oscar in 1994 for Best Film in a Foreign Language, and it bears a lot of the traits loved by the Academy members: set in 1936, it is a period piece with a relationship plot at the heart of the narrative, enhanced by wonderful cinematography and authentic production values and, annoyingly, it has an epic running length at almost two and half hours long, which makes this occasionally a very ponderous film.

Thankfully, Mikhakov allows room for fun moments and even musical numbers between family and friends, making this less po-faced and pretentious than similar genre efforts. Burnt by the Sun is one part family drama and one part period piece, with Mikhalkov skilfully weaving the two together to a tragic climax – a climax that will have to be ignored for the forthcoming sequel, which inexplicably contains all the main characters. Burnt by the Sun will be liked by those who enjoy a historical love story but for others, though, its long running length is perhaps a little too much.