by Nathan Osborne
Making its world premiere at BFI Flare, Peeter Rebane’s familiar but beautifully crafted feature debut is a soaring exploration of masculinity, homophobia and sexuality in secret.
Set at the height of the Cold War and based on a true story, Firebird charts the love triangle between a troubled young private, a daring fighter pilot and a female comrade on a soviet Air Force base. A British-Estonian collaboration, Firebird captures an era of dangerous consequences for gay men but tenderly realises the irresistible attraction that overpowers all.
With visually sweeping scenes that extracts the beauty amongst the harsh environment their love attempts to survive in, and a moody colour palette that affirms the serious tone of the piece, it is a production as handsome as its lead actors. Although the CGI isn’t always up to scratch, it thankfully never detracts from the audience’s immersion in the era and tone.
Co-writing alongside his lead, Tom Prior, Rebane’s rich screenplay tackles familiar themes such homophobia and masculinity with confidence. Although content like this are very often presented alongside queer period stories of Firebird’s ilk, the tenderness with which they are considered never grows old or stale. It’s not often we see gay Russian character on screen, with the social context their nationality offers bringing a new and powerful perspective.
As with most queer storytelling, the performances are vital in ensuring that the central romance is deeply felt, and leads Tom Prior and Oleg Zagorodnil achieve that with plenty of chemistry. Passion in abundance, their dynamic relationship provides Firebird with a fire that crackles throughout, with Prior in particular giving a beautifully-drawn and subtle performance that conveys both the fear of the romance and the overwhelming passion of love. Although casting an English-speaking actor in the lead role takes some time adjusting to given the setting, and the idea of a Russian ensemble taking on this piece is a compelling one, it does work rather well.
A film of two halves, Firebird‘s first is undoubtedly stronger: the power and the scintillating emotion of a restricted romance in a confined setting makes for compelling viewing, the blossoming relationship sharply contrasted against the regimented setting. While the potency and power of the relationship is dispersed somewhat when we leave the airbase into the second hour, we are still wholly transfixed in the forbidden affair that now spans continents and years – a clear indication of the strong chemistry and solid foundations laid in the first half.
Firebird may not burn a new trail in queer storytelling, often feeling familiar and never quite pushing the boundaries – but it is no less affecting because of it and solidly executes its story and themes. Beautifully performed with some lovely visuals, Firebird sparks a moving love tale that resonates and moves.
Firebird is playing part of BFI Flare Film Festival.
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