Atmospheric Train Thriller.
Two square American church workers (Harrelson and Mortimer) board the
Transsiberian Railway to travel from Beijing to Moscow. The train is
cramped, the facilities minimal, and most of the other passengers look
as if they smell of cabbage soup. Their two room mates are a young
couple, the handsome and charming Eduardo Noriego and his taciturn girl
friend Kate Mara.
Noriega is an ingratiating soul, full of savoir faire, who once had an
awkward moment just to see what it felt like. Over a crapulous dinner
in the jammed and smoky dining car, he warns them to watch out for the
Russian police. Too many drug runners take this train, hiding heroin in
unlikely places. He himself, he admits, is a smuggler. He shows them
his goods: a dozen or so painted wooden dolls, each with a rhopalic
series of smaller dolls inside. Similar cheap dolls are sold as
trinkets all over the place but these are exquisite works of folk art
and worth more money to collectors outside of Russia. What he doesn't
tell them, of course, is what the sophisticated viewer already knows
they are made of.
Well -- to make the narrative brief -- a layover is forced upon them in
a small village. Noriega takes Mortimer deep into the snowy woods to
show her an ancient abandoned church in the wilderness. There, he tries
to attack her and she improbably beats him to death with a one-by-four
She leaves his body in the snow and makes it back to the hotel, where
she and her husband, Harrelson, board the train again, only for her to
discover that Noriega has stuffed the "dolls" into her camera bag.
Harrelson is dumb to what's been going on. Mortimer has nowhere to turn
and is a nervous wreck, guilty for having murdered an innocent young
man and now in possession of enough heroin to put her in the gulag
until the last permafrost melts. Every time she tries to dispose of the
dope -- throwing the dolls out an open door or dumping them into the
toilet -- she's interrupted by an angry authority figure.
To make matter worse, their new room mate is Ben Kingsley, who is a
detective for the Russian equivalent of the Bureau of Narcotics.
Everything gets pretty dicey. Identities aren't what they seem. And
there is a lot of money left to be discovered by someone.
I had expected a kind of travelogue. I mean -- the Transsiberian
Railway! Who wouldn't want to make a trip like that, the discomforts
notwithstanding? I was gravely disappointed to discover that a show on
the National Geographic Channel would have been more informative. The
train seems to travel through nothing more than a snowbound forest of
deciduous trees. I'll tell you, that doesn't look like Siberia to me. I
want a carpet of fir trees interspersed with larches, steppes, bogs of
sphagnum under a hovering haze of moquitoes. That's MY Siberia! This
one looks too much like upstate New York, and it's dull.
Well, dull as far as the scenery goes anyway. The story itself is
pretty tautly written, beginning with a nice, slow, expository-friendly
section, and gradually picking up its pace as more and more revelations
Harrelson is one of the better-known names but he's a marginal figure,
well meaning but innocent. The central character is Emily Mortimer as
his wife. It's really all about her. She's the one from whose point of
view the events are seen, and it's she who is keeping all the secrets.
She's plain looking, unglamorous, and quite good. So is Noriega as
Carlos the Jackal. He has the best lines. As he helps Mortimer onto a
dilapidated bus, he remarks, "Is it transportation? Or a time machine."
Arguably the best performance is from Ben Kingsley, even when he's
speaking Russian phonetically. He's a convincing actor. I can't think
of a single film that he's torpedoed, although he must be hard as hell
to cast, with his pointy bald head, big drooping nose, and half-Indian
features. Compare his performance with that of the American narcotics
agent who debriefs the couple after their return. One performance is
that of an actor; the other is actorish.
Nicely written, with an ironic ending. And well executed..
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A weak movie. Emily Mortimer's character was just plain irritating and
there were too many poorly contrived connecting plot points. It's as if
the director and/or writer(s) (one of the writers being the director)
wrote a story summary and then tried to connect the scenes together
after the fact and as I mentioned, these connecting points were really
weak and came off as contrived. Any suspense that was built was marred
by Emily Mortimer's character's irritating weakness and contradictory
behavior. The scenery was interesting but the rest was just annoying..
Borrow the DVD if you must but otherwise I wouldn't recommend seeing it