A proud Cossack, Taras Bulba welcomes home his sons Ostap and Andriy from studying in Kiev. Wanting to toughen them up, he encourages them to ride with him as he persuades his fellow countrymen to break their peace treaties and ride to war against the Polish. Laying siege to the Polish force in Dubno Castle, Andriy discovers that Polish princess Elzhbeta is in the castle, he briefly fell in love with her in Kiev - led into the castle by her handmaiden, he finds the people starving and agrees to help the Polish defenders - he leads them into pitched battle against the Cossacks and his own father...
Closely based on Nikolai Gogol's eponymous novel from 1842, the Russian produced Taras Bulba is a highly politicised and inevitably controversial take on a complex period of nation forming. Written at a time of conflict within Tsarist Russia against rebellion in Poland, Gogol's book was originally intended as vivid anti-Polish propaganda. In 2009, director (and card carrying Communist Party member) Vladimir Bortko's script looks to convert the Ukranian Cossacks into unabashed, vocally patriotic Russians in a clear attempt to promote the strong ties that Russian claims with the people and territory of the Ukraine (the film was produced before the 2013 Russian influenced succession of parts of the Eastern Ukraine which have made these motifs even more pointed), accordingly there are numerous patriotic references to Mother Russia in the speeches, narration and lengthy dying words of the Russian speaking Cossacks.
Aside from the politics, Taras Bulba does make for an enjoyable historical epic films, there is brisk pacing throughout and the plot is kept relatively minimal, with subplots like Andriy's romance with the Princess told in pieces through short flashbacks rather than slowing down the story. The first half of the film builds up to the siege of Dubno Castle which culminates in a tremendous twenty minute battle sequence and is the highlight of the film and certainly ranks among the best battle scenes ever filmed, moving smoothly from a close-up focus on particular characters to broad sweeping views of the combat, this is aided by the decent characterisation of the supporting characters that makes their deaths meaningful - unfortunately it is hampered by the long dying speeches given by a number of the Cossacks that might be acceptable as soliloquies in a theatrical play, but feel flow destroying and out of place here. The sequences after the battle do feel a little rushed over as though Bortko was just trying to skip through the latter half of the story to get to the suitably dramatic conclusion, which does at least get some time to develop (at least it makes for a better treatment than the 1962 Hollywood film which just cuts off the second half of the book entirely).
As a director Bortko does some fine work; like many contemporary Russian films, he seems to be aiming for a Hollywood-sleek feel and the production certainly feels big budget and readily accessible for Western audiences. The battle scenes are certainly highlights with a large scale and welcome absence of computer generated effects - the locations and costumes look superb and the distinctive Winged Hussars are fascinatingly portrayed. Bortko uses a variety of interesting angles including some great steadicam work that allows the camera to follow individual characters as they ride through chaotic battle scenes, without the nausiating hand-held shots of many other contemporary war films. The most unusual aspects of the battle scenes are the bloody close-ups, every sword or spear thrust is accompanied by a close-up of it piecing the skin - this certainly helps to show the brutality of hand-to-hand combat, although the continual intercutting does feel rather disjointed. A later execution scene is similarly shown in all its graphic detail.
Veteran Ukranian actor Bohdan Stupka is superbly cast as Taras Bulba and although old enough to be convincing in the part, he has a real strength of character that makes him a believable leader of his people. German born Igor Petrenko (eponymous star of the Russian television series Sherlock Holmes (2013)) and Vladimir Vdovichenkov (who appeared in Oscar nominated Leviathan (2014)) play Andriy and Ostap respectively. Stunning Polish model and actress Magdalena Mielcarz never gets much to do as Elzhbeta, but she certainly makes Andriy's defection understandable.
Once you get past the rather shoehorned political themes (that even if you do not find them objectionable are certainly rather overdone and unsubtle), Taras Bulba is an accurate translation of Gogol's story with brisk pacing and some genuinely epic battle scenes that do not shy away from the bloody reality of conflict in the 16th Century. For fans of Russian cinema this is a must-see and definitely one of the very best of the historical productions of the 2000s, fans of historical and epic films in general should enjoy this, provided they can overlook the overcooked patriotism.
|Anyone famous in it?||No-one well known.|
|Directed by anyone interesting?||Vladimir Bortko - Russian director who started making films in the later days of the Soviet Union, such as philiosphical Sobache serdtse (1988) and dramatic Afghanistan war film Afganskiy izlom (1991)|
|Any gore or violence ?||A large number of bloody close-ups during the battles and a very brutal and vividly shown execution.|
|Any sex or nudity?||A short sex scene with a couple of brief topless shots.|
|Who is it for?||Fans of historical epics and contemporary Russian cinema should enjoy this.
|Visuals||Aspect Ratio - 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen. Colour.
A clean digital transfers with good colour and detail.
|Audio||2.0 Russian (lines in Polish are over-dubbed in Russian)|
|Subtitles||English burnt-in - clear and error free, covering both Russian and Polish dialogue.|
|Region||Region 0 (ALL) - PAL|
|Other regions?||Released in the US as 'The Conqueror' including an English dub track.|
|Cuts?||Believed to be fully uncut as per the theatrical release (IMDb lists a longer television version, although there are no other details of this). Print language is Russian.|