Movie review: Good intentions go bad in chilling 'Elena'

Review • Russian drama illustrates nation's class divide.
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There are no good guys in Russian director Andrey Zvyagintsev's dark drama "Elena," just people with good intentions doing bad things — and people doing good things for others who may not deserve it.

Elena (Nadezhda Markina, in a wrenching performance) is a 50ish ex-nurse married two years to Vladimir (Andrey Smirnov), an older but still healthy man who met her when he was hospitalized a decade before. Vladimir is wealthy but stingy, particularly when it comes to Elena's unemployed adult son, Sergey (Alexey Rozin) — who has a new baby and a teen son, Sasha (Igor Ogurtsov), who needs money to get into university and avoid the Army. Vladimir believes Sergey should take care of his own family's problems.

When Vladimir has a heart attack, it prompts a reunion with his jaded adult daughter, Katerina (Yelena Lyadova). After getting out of the hospital, Vladimir decides he will change his will, leaving almost all of his fortune to Katerina — and nothing for Elena's family. This leads Elena to make a desperate choice.

Zvyagintsev moves the story with a slow, brooding pace — aided by a somber Philip Glass score — that turns the screws patiently and inexorably toward a shattering conclusion. The camera movements are deliberative, the shots long and engrossing, as Zvyagintsev allows us to soak up every detail of Elena's two worlds: her husband's opulently modern apartment and her son's cluttered tenement.

"Elena" also illustrates a class divide in post-Soviet Russia that may surprise outside observers. The old collectivist notion is long gone, though still fondly desired by those (like Sergey) who live without — and, as Vladimir's riches and miserly attitude suggest, an every-man-for-himself capitalism has taken firm hold. The fact that the new Russia feels as gray and bleak as the old Soviet Union is as chilling as anything this movie's characters do.

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A woman takes desperate measures when an inheritance is at risk in this brooding Russian drama.

Where • Broadway Centre Cinemas.

When • Opens Friday, Oct. 19.

Rating • Not rated, but probably R for language and violence.

Running time • 109 minutes; in Russian with subtitles.