Friday, January 22, 2021

Soft Targets

Play for Today: Soft Targets (GB 1982, SC: Stephen Poliakoff, D: Charles Sturridge) with Helen Mirren (Celia Watson) and Ian Holm (Alexei Varyov).

Play for Today: Soft Targets (GB 1982, SC: Stephen Poliakoff, D: Charles Sturridge) with Helen Mirren (Celia Watson).

Play for Today: Soft Targets.
    GB 1982. PC: BBC. P: Kenith Trodd.
    D: Charles Sturridge. SC: Stephen Poliakoff. Cin: Nat Crosby – colour – 1,33:1. PD: Derek Dodd. M: Geoffrey Burgon. S recordist: Peter Edwards. S boom operator: Patrick Quirke. Mono.
    C: Ian Holm (Alexei Varyov), Helen Mirren (Celia Watson), Nigel Havers (Harman), Celia Gregory (Frances), Thorley Walters (Old Wedding Guest), Margery Mason (Celia's Mother), Hugh Thomas (Castle), Tony Doyle (Kirby), Chris Langham (Drinkwater), Yuri Borienko (Porter), Karen Craig (Aeroflot Lady), Rupert Everett (Boy at Party). Julian Sands (Groom), Michael Lees (Man from Wimbledon), Desmond Llewelyn (Official in Dream), Kay Adshead (Hotel Waitress), Sarah Martin (Girl at Party), Kate Percival (Bride), Diana Malin (Waitress in Café).
    Soundtrack selections in the ambient background: Bananarama: "Shy Boy" (Steve Jolley, Tony Swain, summer 1982). Duke Ellington: "Don't Get Around Much Anymore" (1940). Elvis Costello: "Watching the Detectives" (1977).
    Film posters on display: Dead Reckoning (1947), Circle of Deceit (Die Fälschung, 1981).
    95 min
    Telepremiere: 19 Oct 1982.
    YouTube link viewed on a 4K tv set at home in Lappeenranta, 22 Jan 2021.

In memoriam Sir Ian Holm (1931–2020).

AA: My Ian Holm memorial double bill tonight started with Moonlight on a Highway, an early telefilm written by Dennis Potter, and continued with an early telefilm by another great British dramatist, Stephen Poliakoff, sometimes called the inheritor of Potter's crown.

The year is 1982, the year of the death of Leonid Brezhnev. In London, the Russian journalist Alexei Varyov (Ian Holm) writes banal pieces about the city. Home video recorders are a recent invention, and Alexei's apparently most important task is to tape light entertainment shows from the British television and bring them to the Aeroflot counter at the airport for instant delivery.

The story can be seen as a vision of the Brezhnevian stagnation era. A shadowy ambience of intelligence and espionage surrounds Alexei's life, but everything turns out to be meaningless or insignificant. Soft Targets makes John Le Carré's books look like action thrillers.

We never get to know whether Alexei is a spy. Perhaps he belongs to a web of red herrings and decoys, meant to distract the British intelligence from true agents. Bored with his London existence, Alexei tries to commit a small but conspicuous blunder in order to be able to return to Russia.

Things get complicated when he meets Celia Watson (Helen Mirren), and a real attraction and friendship emerges. For reasons unrelated to Alexei, Celia tries to commit suicide. A shared feeling of alienation and exile has brought them together.

To my ears, Ian Holm's Russian accent sounds believable. Besides Poliakoff, also Helen Mirren (Mironoff, of Russian nobility) has Russian family roots. Ian Holm brings a Gogolian presence to the tale of absurd bureaucracy. Helen Mirren's is a dignified interpretation of tragic anomie in the big city.

Soft Targets is already a display of Poliakoff's fascination with concealed histories, secret aspects, retrieved documents and juxtapositions of sound and image (pop songs in the background seem to carry odd implications to the story).

Soft Targets is an understated vision of existential ambiguity during the last decade of the Cold War. In his dream, Alexei even meets Desmond Llewellyn, who played Q in the James Bond film series.

Watching the film, I was thinking about Catherine Belton's Putin's People : How KGB Took Back Russia and Then Took On the West (2020), for me the book of the year. It is a scary account of the quiet and patient infiltration of the Russian espionage networks into the West, and London in particular. Russia's shadow budget of dark money may be as big as the official state budget, and its purpose is to undermine the West via corruption. With Trump and Brexit, Putin scored huge victories, and the role of FSB (as KGB now is called) may prove vital. Even decoys like Alexei may have had a role, even if unwittingly.



Ever been in a situation...
bob99818 May 2012
Helen Mirren At the BBC, disc 5.

"This is a wonderful example of BBC drama at its best. Ian Holm is excellent as Alexei, the very low level Soviet operative in London, whose work seems to consist of taping trash TV shows for the delectation of people in Moscow. He is very bored with his "work", as who wouldn't be, and wants to be sent home. He understands that returning home can only depend on getting into trouble of a relatively minor nature--a slight car accident with no-one hurt might do the job, or being drunk and obnoxious in public. Imagine Alexei's despair when he finds he's so insignificant in the food chain that nobody wants to expel him."

"Besides Ian Holm, Nigel Havers is fun to watch as the lanky FO man who presses Alexei into his entourage, and Celia Gregory (an actress I hadn't seen before) is mysterious as Frances the party girl. Helen Mirren plays the desperate Celia, whom Alexei falls for, hopelessly.


Soft Targets (1982)

Written by Stephen Poliakoff and Directed by Charles Sturridge

"Soft Targets gives an intense, almost dreamlike, vision of London as seen through the eyes of a minor Russian official as he goes about his daily business, desperate to get back to his homeland. Filmed in 1982 when the Cold War was still very much in evidence and every Russian in London was regarded as a spy by anyone he met. The story is also a study in loneliness and charts a bittersweet love story between Alexei and an Englishwoman played by Helen Mirren who is suffering a crisis of identity."

"An unusual role for Helen Mirren, she gives an extremely touching performance as Celia and Ian Holm gives an excellent performance as the Russian Official."

"The film features a fascinating supporting cast including Desmond Llewelyn who famously played ‘Q’ in a number of James Bond films, Thorley Walters, Tony Doyle and Chris Langham. There are very brief appearances by a youthful Rupert Everett and Julian Sands."

"Meticulously directed by Charles Sturridge, the script offers a highly original angle on the paranoia of the Cold War, concentrating on two fragile individuals caught up in the political tensions of their day."

"Soft Targets is available on DVD as part of the Helen Mirren BBC collection.

Production Notes

" "Soft Target" is Stephen Poliakoff's entertaining and sumptuously bizarre look at upper-middle-class English life, seen through the eyes of a minor Soviet official. Living quietly by himself in a west London compound with other Russian journalists and civil servants, his rather humdrum life of typing up Time Out-style articles for the Soviet press, with a side-line in posting videotapes of British TV to Russian broadcasters made from the twin VCRs in his flat, is livened up with a hefty dose of Cold War paranoia. The theme of Cold War attracted Mirren to play in this "Play for Today" adaptation."


Jim said...

Dear Antti,

Hello, I hope all is well. I was wondering if you know where I can get a copy of the film "Bukhara" that was in your blog a few years ago.

I would greatly appreciate your assistance in this. I am a researcher and this would be of great benefit for my project.


Antti Alanen said...

Dear Jim,

The source is:
RGAKFD, Krasnogorsk

The source is also credited in Pordenone's program notes that I copied as the basis of my remarks:

These are terrible times in our beloved cinema business & culture, but we will fight!