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Limonov: The Ballad

  • Film
  • 3 out of 5 stars
  • Recommended
Limonov: The Ballad of Eddie
Photograph: Andrejs Strokins/Cannes Film Festival
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Time Out says

3 out of 5 stars

A no-holds-barred Ben Whishaw powers this punky biopic of a Russian literary rebel

Ben Whishaw is miles away from his comfy gig as the voice of Paddington Bear as the impressive star of this punky, challenging biopic about the life of Eduard Limonov – a self-professed literary antihero whose final chaper (he died in 2020, aged 77) saw him involved in radical right-wing Russian politics and waving the flag for the country’s annexation of the Crimea. 

If you’ve no idea who Limonov was, the subtitle of Emmanuel Carrère’s 2014 book on which Russian filmmaker Kirill Serebrennikov (Leto, Petrov’s Flu) bases this film, is a snappy intro: ‘The Outrageous Adventures of the Radical Soviet Poet Who Became a Bum in New York, a Sensation in France, and a Political Antihero in Russia’. 

That’s a fair summary of the film’s story, but it also captures the spirit and tone of Serebrennikov’s film, which crashes through time and space with a similar mercurial force as Limonov apparently did through life. 

Limonov, born in Russia and raised in Kharkiv in Ukraine, was already a poet when he moved to New York in the 1970s, and it’s that scuzzy chapter of his life, followed by his time in Paris in the 1980s, over which Serebrennikov mostly lingers. Even before he left the USSR, Limonov was outspoken on the idea of ‘exiled dissidents’, spitting bile on successful contemporaries like Solzhenitsyn and Yevtushenko who, in his mind, too comfortably inhabited the role. (Serebrennikov surely has his own thoughts on the matter, having himself fallen foul of Putin’s government as a controversial theatre director. He now lives and works outside Russia.)

The impressive Ben Whishaw is miles away from Paddington Bear her

It’s an arresting account of a man whose behaviour was often vile (almost strangling his girlfriend, Elena, played by Viktoria Miroshnichenko, tops a long list of misdemeanours), but you do wonder why Serebrennikov doesn’t linger long on those later years when he organised and inspired extremely questionable political action in Russia and Ukraine? The difference between what Limonov lived and what he wrote isn’t clear from this film, which is partly the point: Serebrennikov positions him as the star of his own movie in life as on screen, even having him burst through the film’s set at one moment.

As history, I’d take this account with a pinch of salt – it feels too enamoured by certain elements of its antihero’s story and blinkered to others – but as an exercise in capturing the man’s self-engineered legend, it’s energetic and engrossing.

Limonov: A Ballad premiered at the Cannes Film Festival.

Dave Calhoun
Written by
Dave Calhoun

Cast and crew

  • Director:Kirill Serebrennikov
  • Screenwriter:Kirill Serebrennikov, Pawel Pawlikowski, Ben Hopkins
  • Cast:
    • Masha Mashkova
    • Sandrine Bonnaire
    • Ben Whishaw
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