'Firebird' Film Review | BFI Flare LGBTQ+ Film Festival 2021
Updated: Nov 7, 2021
At first, Firebird confused me - I wasn’t sure what it wanted to be. The film, which depicts the real romance between two KGB soldiers during the Cold War, has fairly scattered intentions. For a film which seems to take itself quite seriously it is, at times, a little too sexy for it’s own good, with it’s Bridgerton-esque sensuality and lead actors who’d feel at home on the cover of ‘Men’s Health’. There is an undeniable tension in Firebird between its aspiration to be a gritty period piece and its desire to be an exhibition of homoerotic beekcakery, and I’m not sure the film’s director (Peeter Rebane) effectively signals to which side he’d prefer his audience to lean.
That’s not to say a film or series can’t be sexy and dramatic, Bridgerton walked this line very well; in not taking itself so seriously, its dramatic moments don't feel so forced. Firebird’s sex scenes are neither as graphic or as plentiful as Bridgerton’s, but the film’s abundance of topless swimming scenes and KGB uniforms deliberately tailored to be as tight and form fitting as possible ensure it’s aesthetic appeal. The film has a tendency to switch jarringly, though, between the sultry and the solemn - we ricochet between moments of tender intimacy and violent hate-crimes. To Firebird’s credit, both of these two extremes are executed convincingly well, and I’m sure Rebane would suggest these tonal pendulum swings are a conscious attempt at displaying the constant societal threat to queer love in a hostile environment. I guess I’m just trying to say that these two tones could have been better integrated into each other, because Firebird can feel like The Notebook one minute and The Green Mile the very next.
It doesn’t help that the very nature of Firebird’s narrative leads it into an abundance of cinematic cliché’s that seem to plague queer movie-making. The disproportionate focus that gay romance films have on white, cisgender, muscular leading men is a symptom of larger issues in the queer community, and it’s time we started to curate a more representative canon of LGBTQ+ films. Firebird is burdened, too, by the 'other woman' archetype - a character who’s always ready to anchor down queer romantic sentiment with a healthy side-order of disgust and shame. Also present is the ‘homophobic grunt’, who makes it a mission to ensure our lovebirds spend more time in jail than they do in each other's arms.
Firebird's saving grace is that these cliché’s are unavoidable. The film's very mission statement is to detail the life of Sergey Fetisov, who is played wonderfully here by Tom Prior, and Fetisov lived during a time and a regime in which these two-dimensional homophobes did exist. So too did these ‘other women’, women bound in loveless unions with queer men who themselves were terrified of persecution. Firebird's 'other woman' character, Luisa, did exist, and further research into Firebird reveals that her and Sergey's relationship was far more strained in the original script; effort has clearly been made to make her character feel less like a moralistic judgement on the main relationship and more like a real and nuanced person.
Even the two-dimensional homophobe character which haunts our pair throughout the film is grounded by a sinister post-credits scene, which didn't add nuance to the character per se, but grounds him as a metaphor for the ghoulish queerphobic violence which still plagues ex-soviet states today. And while western gay media must make an effort to tell more intersectional queer narratives, there is an undeniable value to depicting the stories of gay men in these countries considering they’re currently being rounded up into concentration camps. A critical lens may find Firebird weighed down by its own truths, but it's also this lens through which it can find forgiveness. It's a film based on secret love letters and hidden photographs, and on the recollections of Fetisov himself, and I wasn’t quite aware of how close I’d grown to the character until a photograph of him was featured during the movie’s credits - it actually choked me up. It was this moment that helped me to understand Firebird's intentions.
You couldn't be blamed to think that I disliked Firebird judging by the tone I've employed in this review so far - maybe I'm the creative with a confusing tone? The truth is that I had great fun with this film, and I wanted to adequately cover my issues with the piece before I go on to ladle it with praise.
Firebird is an undeniably impactful love story which immediately cements itself as a must-see queer romance in the wider canon. Tom Prior, who also lent his pen to the film’s screenplay, has undeniable chemistry with his co-lead Oleg Zagorodnii. I actually found out after the film that Zagorodnii isn’t even a fluent English speaker, which makes this connection all the more impressive (I mean, his character speaks entirely in English - it’s a real feat of a performance). Sergey and Roman’s charming romance offers audiences some stunning covid-escapism - it really does have all the ingredients of a classic love story. To its credit, the film also takes its audience on some pretty brilliant narrative twists and turns (even if one or two fall into aforementioned clichés), and I found myself thoroughly invested in these characters and their relationship.
The film also offers a strong aesthetic vision. Beautiful cinematography only elevates Firebird's strong costume design (courtesy of Marjatta Nissinen and Mare Raidma), and the aforementioned KGB uniforms designed specifically for this film are convincing and effective. Around halfway through the film, when Sergey leaves his military compound and starts a new life in Moscow, these starched khakis are traded in for a variety of silks and shearlings and the film goes through an almost Ozian shift; the greys and greens of Sergey's KGB life give way to an influx of stylish coats and colour, and it's so much fun to see Sergey explore his identity as a young man beyond the confines of his barracks. On top of being a visual treat, these bright vintage outfits perfectly depict Sergey’s emotional liberation after leaving the hyper-masculine militia. It's filmic flairs like this that really help the audience to grow fond of Sergey, who's emotive puppy dog eyes end up guiding us through years and years of his life.
It’s clear that Firebird is a film with pretty large goals, and the aspiration to be many things to many people. It might take a while to adjust to, but the film’s inconsistent tone can be understood as an (occasionally jarring) filmic representation of contextual heteronormative pressures, and I eventually settled into its rhythm. In doing so, I found Firebird to be a genuinely rewarding romantic watch. Its sweeping plot and military backdrop give it a flavour and aesthetic not dissimilar to the romances of classic Hollywood, and I'm looking forward to re-watching the couple navigate the pressures of anti-gay society. While it certainly has a few structural and tonal issues, I don’t think I’d be alone in suggesting that Firebird is a must-watch for audiences in search of a great queer love story. I think, in the end, this is a film which does the impossible - it has its [beef]cake and eats it too.
Written by James Green