In 1937 a book was published without an author. 80 years on, the author remains anonymous, despite many attempts to figure out just who was behind it. The novel was a love story, centred on the romance between two lovers – Ali is a young Azerbaijani Muslim of noble descent from Baku, exposed to western culture in his upbringing. He’s deeply in love with Nino, a Georgian princess with a Christian background, who lives in Tbilisi.
Set in the Caspian Sea region, the tribulations the pair face play out against the backdrop of the Azerbaijan Democratic Republic period that very briefly preceded Soviet rule in the region. Put simply, it’s a tricky time to be in Baku. The obstacles the pair face are myriad. Be it Nino’s hard-to-please parents, or Ali’s ‘friend’ Melik, who excels as the subject in a round of spot the bad guy.
Events conspire to send our lovers on a fascinating journey, one worthy of a novel widely regarded as a literary masterpiece. Unfortunately, it’s not a story that is easily adapted for the screen.
Early 20th century Georgia is not a time and place particularly familiar to western audiences, and while that makes it prime for depiction, without the density of the novel to paint the picture, the film becomes a whistle-stop tour without a guide.
Flitting through time at an inconsistent pace, it’s often hard to tell where or when we are in the larger story. The war becomes a confusing backdrop, and the cultural detail little more than footnotes. Indeed, it’s almost as if the book is required reading, such is the way screenwriter Christopher Hampton has dipped in and out of the original narrative. It also means the story aims for emotional punches it hasn’t earned. And at times, inadvertently finds humour in the po-faced, slo-mo seriousness employed to achieve the heft that the book commands.
Credit must be given for the producer’s insistence on shooting on location, offering the movie a sense of scale that director Asif Kapadia, making his dramatic debut after scoring documentary kudos with the likes of Amy and Senna, makes the most of. He doesn’t, however, manage to get the most out of his cast.
The leads – Maria Valverde and Adam Bakri as Ali and Nino respectively – are pleasant enough, even if they do spend a little too much time gazing into one another’s eyes. Something that robs the film of any real weight. And that feels like the film’s biggest issue. It’s reminiscent of Dr Zhivago, but without the budget, the talent – and subsequently the scale – is lacking.
The most convincing performances tend to come from the supporting cast. That said, Homeland’s Mandy Potemkin dips in and out of proceedings, either because the story leaves him behind, or because he’s underplaying the part to the extent that he disappears before your very eyes.
It’s hard to be too critical of a movie that is so earnestly produced, directed and performed. It’s unfortunate that, among the many barriers on Ali and Nino’s journey, storytelling is by far the biggest issue. One they, and the filmmakers, have failed to overcome.