The corrupting power of money runs through the veins of this superb Russian film like formaldehyde flowing through a corpse. The story has an eerie, powerful simplicity: a well-meaning former nurse from a modest background, Elena (Nadezhda Markina), lives with her wealthy husband, Vladimir (Andrey Smirnov), in a luxury, modern home. Her penniless son from her first marriage, Sergei (Aleksey Rozin), wants money for his son’s schooling, but Vladimir is uninterested: he controls their finances with a calm, iron will. His own virtually estranged and difficult daughter, Katerina (Elena Lyadova), from his earlier marriage is a drain on his emotions already. When Vladimir falls ill, and questions of inheritance arise, Elena must act to secure her future.
This is a bleak, mysterious tale, resolutely local and contained in its surface interests. But you can’t help wondering what director Andrey Zvyagintsev (this is his third film after 2003’s stunning ‘The Return’ and 2007’s less satisfying ‘The Banishment’) might be saying about the state of Russia and, specifically, the transition from the Soviet era. The parallels are tempting: an unhappy but controlled situation turns to anarchy; plans for the future are too late and hijacked for personal gain; and, by the film’s final frame, the devil we once knew somehow inspires nostalgia. This is smart, gripping cinema.