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MOVIE REVIEW : LOVE IS THE IDEOLOGY IN ‘BREZHNEV’

Times Staff Writer

In its first hour, the quirky and amusing “Letter to Brezhnev” (at the Goldwyn Pavilion) seems nothing more than an endearing romantic comedy about a couple of larky Liverpool girls who pick up a pair of Soviet sailors for a one-night stand. We’re as unprepared as its heroine for unexpected developments.

From the sea, Liverpool under light fog in early evening looks like a J.M.W. Turner painting, even summoning images of Venice. But on shore there’s not much romance in the lives of Elaine (Alexandra Pigg) and Teresa (Margi Clarke). The latter spends her days stuffing chickens and dreaming of someday becoming a secretary. Elaine isn’t even that fortunate--she can’t find work, and at 22 has no prospects.

On the town one night, Teresa seems to have no end of daring: When some Greek emigres come on strong, she proves light-fingered indeed, even managing to take their car for a spin.

At a disco in a splendid old Beaux Arts ballroom we really see the young women for the first time. What seemed a cheeky, toothy lass in a frumpy work cap and coat emerges as a stunning Monroeish blonde when Teresa returns from a quick change in the ladies’ room. And when Elaine starts gazing at a young Russian sailor, Peter (Peter Firth), sitting with his burly pal Sergei (Alfred Molina) across the dance floor, we realize that this brunette is more than pretty--really a beauty. The foursome pairs off at a local hotel--it’s Teresa’s splurge--but instead of making love, Elaine and Peter fall in love.

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Amid the squeaky female chatter in that irresistible Liverpudlian accent that defies all pretense, there have already been hints of underlying seriousness in Frank Clarke’s script. Elaine remarks to Peter that there’s “a bit of a work problem in England”; she comments on a young couple arguing in the street: “That’s what happens when you give up.” But the film’s turning point is when she decides not to give up Peter.

Clarke and director Chris Bernard, a master at controlling the film’s shifting tones, don’t ask us to agree with Elaine’s assertion that she has nothing to lose in pursuing Peter or that “living in Russia couldn’t be any worse than here.”

“Letter to Brezhnev"--the film was completed several years ago, hence the dated title--is first of all about having the courage to live your dreams. But Elaine’s pursuit of hers forces us to consider--while making the usual dour and dire observations about the Soviet Union--that life in England right now is scarcely earthly paradise, especially for the young, so many of whom believe they have no future beyond the dole.

It’s a point that “My Beautiful Laundrette” makes with more wit and originality, but “Letter to Brezhnev” has its own charm. Pigg and Clarke are gallant and adorable. Molina and Firth, whose slightly doughy features and fine Russian accent make him an especially convincing Soviet, are a perfect match for them. And Neil Cunningham’s Foreign Office type is as maddeningly precise and ruthless as Ian McKellen’s was in “Plenty.”

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Cinematographer Bruce McGowan has given “Letter to Brezhnev” a great gritty look and feel, and Liverpool’s predominantly Victorian inner city proves highly atmospheric, never more so than with its neon reflecting in shiny streets wet with rain. “Letter to Brezhnev” (Times-rated Mature for adult language, themes and situations) is a winner, further evidence of the enduring renewal of the British film industry.

‘LETTER TO BREZHNEV’

A Circle Releasing Corp. release. Producer Janet Goddard. Co-producer Caroline Spack. Director Chris Bernard. Screenplay Frank Clarke. Camera Bruce McGowan. Music Alan Gill. Set designers Lez Brotherston, Nick Englefield, Jonathan Swain. Costumes Mark Reynolds. Associate producer Paul Lister. Film editor Lesley Walker. With Alexandra Pigg, Margi Clarke, Peter Firth, Alfred Molina, Neil Cunningham, Tracy Lea, Mandy Walsh, Angela Clarke, Syd Newman, Eddie Ross, Carl Chase.

Running time: 1 hour, 34 minutes.

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Times-rated: Mature.


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