Review Special: Tobol, The Conquest of Siberia (2019 Igor Zaitsev)

Tobol (Тобол), The Conquest of Siberia (2019, KinoFilm Corp)
Directed by Igor Zaitsev. Featuring Andrey Burkovskiy,  Erkebulan Dairov, Evgeniy Dyatlov  Aleksandr Lazarev, Dmitriy Dyuzhev, Yekaterina Guseva, Agata Muceniece and Ilya Malanin, .

Tobol, also known as The Conquest of Siberia in some British and American releases, is loosely based on historical events, when under Peter the Great in the 17th Century, Russia asserted control over Siberia, and wrestled power away from the Mongols. Ivan Demarin (Malanin), a young patriotic officer of the First Guard, is sent to Siberia, on a ‘peaceful mission’ in search of gold. However, unbeknown to him and his entire regiment the mission was a lure by a local governor to manipulate local affairs, namely to provoke a war between Russia and the Mongols. Ivan meets his regiment at Tobolsk, an outlying township of the Russian empire, where thousands of captive Swedes, Germans and others live in a kind of refugee status. Ivan successfully argues that a large contingent of Swedes should be recruited in return for their freedom after the campaign. Chief among the Swedes is a man called Johan Renat (Burkovskiy).

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The newly enlarged regiment travel further east, establishing a small fortress from where they plan their expeditions. They soon encounter Jungar militia (Mongols), who are deeply suspicious of the Russian presence and their so-called search for gold.  The film then unfolds into an array – sometimes a confusing array – of battle scenes, intense dialogue between key players in the conflict and indeed a few alliances that are not what they seem. Paramount to the story is the fact that the Swede Johan is actually working on the side of the Mongols.

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Technical aspects of the film are all generally fine. Special effects and make-up are good. Acting is quite good, cinematography is fine, sets and design are suitably historic, and along with the costumes they are fashioned to fit in with the era. I found the sound a little intrusive, such as when someone punches a guy and you hear a kind of electronic-volume elevated ‘boom’! The musical score is fine but a little predictable – military precision drums for every action scene. But the script is not especially impressive. I am not really sure whether this is the main thing that is wrong with the film, or whether it is the editing of scenes or even the over-all direction. But parts of the film are confusing. Whereas the first 45 minutes is about all the political intrigue and scheming, the rest of the film seems to take it into a different direction, with lots of battle scenes and unclear moments as to who has been captured or let go or kind of captured but kind of working in aid of their captors. All quite feasible, but not clearly presented. In the end I have to blame the director.

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There are a few women in the film, but they are generally under-whelming. They are there to support their men and not much else. All rather dull (though the actors themselves, Guseva and Muceniece in particular, do a fine job with what they have). There are elements of ‘Russian patriotism vs the sinister Mongols’, but mostly it is fine, and not that different from most war films in which a degree of national propaganda gets its treatment. And they do try to balance it up at the end a bit. All very nice. Overall though, it is not a very exciting film, but it has some fine scenes, and it does deal with a piece of history (slightly imagined) that is not well known. It is worth seeing if you are a history buff (but remember this is a film, not a documentary).

Reviewed by Robin Stevens – Rated 2.5/5 (My Russian friend says 3!)

 

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