A forbidden romance flourishes on a Soviet air base in lush Cold War drama Firebird
1977 on an Estonian Soviet air force base and conscripted private Sergey is counting down the days to the end of his service and his return home. When handsome pilot Roman arrives on the base, he immediately catches Sergey’s attention and the two bond over a shared love of photography and theatre. Their budding romance is complicated by the fact that Roman has also caught the eye of Sergey’s friend Luisa, who is secretary to the base commander. Worse still is the watchful eye of the KGB and the looming threat of five years imprisonment and hard labour for anyone caught engaging in a homosexual relationship.
Firebird is the debut feature from Estonian music video director Peeter Rebane and is based on a true story, taking inspiration from the memoir of the real Sergey ‘The Story of Roman’. It stars Tom Prior (who also co-wrote the film) as Sergey, Oleg Zagorodnii as Roman and Diana Pozharskaya as Luisa. A sweeping romantic epic covering several years in the life of this forbidden love triangle, Firebird is undercut by the intense paranoia and fear of the Cold War era Soviet Union.
It’s a story rooted in a classically beautiful romance made up of wistful longing gazes and dreamy, sensual situations (seriously, who knew developing photos together was so hands on.) The stolen moments and the sneaking around capture the hope and excitement of the early days of a relationship, even as the authorities breathe down the necks of our two young lovers and we the audience realise that no one is getting out of this thing unhurt.
For all the decent acting and intimate storytelling, the true romance of Firebird is created by its utterly gorgeous cinematography. DOP Mair Maekivi frames the two men as beautifully as one of Roman’s own photos and uses bright, vibrant colours to add a literal glow to their scenes together. Contrasted against the drab greyness of the Soviet air base and the utilitarian plainness of Luisa’s apartment, Sergey and Roman’s little world together feels like peeking into a secret patch of sunshine.
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The attention to detail in creating an accurate depiction of 1970s Estonia is astonishing. From the uniforms to the haircuts, to the planes and buildings, director Peeter Rebane has crafted an incredibly rich recreation from intensive research. The main cast were even forced to attend a bootcamp with the actual Estonian army in order to prepare for their roles. This has clearly been a passion project for all involved and that passion shows.
Rebane has stated that he wanted Firebird to be in English in order to reach as wide an audience as possible and this was my only gripe with it. Featuring an international cast, everyone on screen is either speaking in their second language or in a newly learned accent – Oleg Zagorodnii having taken intensive English lessons to play Roman and Tom Prior working with a dialogue coach to perform Sergey.
Consequently, at times dialogue from the supporting cast comes across as stilted, and Prior’s Russian accent is a little less than convincing throughout. It’s not enough to be wholly distracting, but I did find myself wishing it had been done in a more natural language for the setting or they’d done away with accents altogether.
As beautiful as it is (inevitably) tragic, Firebird is a lovingly made, intimate portrait of love and how love struggles to survive in the face of an authoritarian society. An achingly romantic yet sensitive tribute to the real figures at its heart, it is well worth your time.
Firebird is playing as part of BFI Flare, the London LGBTIQ+ Film Festival, between 17th – 28th March. You can buy tickets to stream it right here