Words: Jamie Tabberer; pictures: Firebird (UK/Estonia, dir. Peeter Rebane)
Remember the potent chemistry between Jake Gyllenhaal and the late Heath Ledger in 2005's Brokeback Mountain? Echoes of their brooding, star-crossed love reverberate like planes in the sky in Firebird: a Cold War-set romantic thriller that premiered at BFI FLARE yesterday.
Societal homophobia and toxic masculinity are more shared themes - albeit, our dashing protagonists tend to fighter aircraft over frolicking lambs, with swoon-inducing parade dress replacing denim and cowboy hats.
The uniforms are spectacular, recalling the work of Tom of Finland (and the ace 2017 biopic of the same name). The peaked caps, starched collars and mighty shoulder pads only intensify the square, angular faces of lead actors Tom Prior and Oleg Zagorodnii.
There's a controlled uniformity to their facial expressions too, with the mere darting of eyes expressing countless emotions.
The same applies to the architecturally brutal sets and sharply-framed shots. (Never has an army barracks looked so fashion shoot-ready - as per 2019 erotic drama The Prince, set in a Chilean men's prison).
It's a stylised staidness that contrasts brilliantly with one colourful, ghoulish ballet scene, which pops with vibrancy. I could have watched a whole film of it.
Visually, it's hard to fault Firebird - the special effects for example, although modest on what one assumes is a moderate but limited budget, are very good. Even if one aviation scene depicting metaphorical ejaculation is a touch inelegant compared to the subtlety elsewhere.
The sex scenes themselves are especially tasteful, and oh so beautifully lit. The Romeo Beckham-esque Prior, who plays trainee Sergey, has told Attitude he "effectively" coordinated them, and this investment has resulted in something very moving and human.
In the film, Prior's Sergey falls for seductive superior Roman, played by Zagorodnii; both actors are never anything but 100% committed and earnest. For all his pluck and pomp, and despite initiating the relationship, it's Roman who retreats when danger strikes, marrying and starting a family with Sergey's friend and colleague Luisa (an underused but heartbreaking Diana Pozharskaya).
But he's no villain, and his feelings for Sergey are pure. Thus, a years-spanning love triangle ensues - and one where there can be no winners. Granted, the plot doesn't reinvent the wheel (even the upcoming My Policeman starring Harry Styles sounds near-identical). But as it's based on a true story, Firebird feels timeless rather than trying.
Perhaps it's the thoughtful dialogue - delivered through thick, arresting accents - that freshens things up. One line, on the cost of living a lie and the erosion of self-respect that causes, feels radically insightful. As LGBTQs are driven into the closet through Russia's anti-gay propaganda law and Chechnya's anti-gay purge, it still feels pertinent decades later.
Tickets for BFI Flare: London LGBTIQ+ Film Festival are available now.