REVIEW – ‘Firebird’ is a sweeping epic queer romance that’s somewhat damaged by its hokey screenplay

In a case of auspicious timing, a queer love story set in the days of the Soviet Union will arrive in Australian cinemas at a time when Russia faces global condemnation for its horrifying war on Ukraine. However, special one-night-only screenings of Peeter Rebane‘s Firebird are actually timed to coincide with International Day Against Homophobia, Biphobia and Transphobia on May 17.

A sweeping epic that’s somewhat damaged by its hokey screenplay, Firebird ultimately soars on the backs of its two leads whose intoxicating chemistry crafts a captivating gay romance that strangely feels too safe to be truly revolutionary.

Co-written by Rebane with the film’s dashingly handsome lead actor Tom Prior, Firebird is based on the true story found in Sergey Fetisov’s memoir The Story of Roman. Set in the late 1970s on an air force base in occupied Estonia, the film centres on Sergey Serebrennikov (Prior, who also serves as one of the film’s producers), a young Russian who has put his dreams of acting on hold to complete his national service.

Counting down the days until his conscription is finally over, Sergey prefers to spend his time palling around with Luisa (Diana Pozharskaya), a local Estonian glamour working on the base as a  commanding officer’s private secretary. While it’s clear Luisa is madly in love with the young actor, Sergey is hiding a secret that would see him thrown into prison under Russian law that criminalises homosexuality. Sergey’s life is flipped upside down by the arrival of daring fighter pilot Roman (Oleg Zagorodnii). Almost instantly, the pair begin a forbidden romance away from the watchful eyes of their brutal superiors.

The story that follows takes a similar path to that of Ang Lee’s Brokeback Mountain as we witness Sergey and Roman’s secret love over several years. Despite Sergey leaving the base and Roman taking drastic steps to cover the growing suspicion around his sexuality, these two just can’t seem to quit each other. Regardless, we know their romance can never survive the inescapable reality of the narrative’s period setting, so you can see where all this is heading from a mile away.

After something as glowingly warm and brightly optimistic as Netflix’s recent uber-popular series Heartstopper, it’s a wild juxtaposition to head back to a time where gay love was a literal crime. This kind of doomed queer romance has now practically become a film genre all in itself.

And that’s a problem for Firebird when so many movies have tackled this exact narrative with greater finesse and nuance. The art of gay romance cinema has been elevated by pieces like Moonlight, Call Me By Your Name, and Brokeback Mountain. A queer film like Firebird is no longer groundbreaking just by its very existence.

It’s wonderful we live in a cinematic landscape where stories of queer folk are more common than ever. However, it does set a certain level of quality that Firebird doesn’t quite reach. Rebane and Prior’s screenplay hits too many familiar beats to feel like anything particularly fresh and new.

The will-they-won’t-they tension of their first encounters. The passionate love scenes. The hopeful discussions of what their life together could be. The painful realisation those fantasies will never come true. We’ve been here before and it’s hard to say if it’s necessary to go here again.

It’s obviously important to remember the tragic and shameful reality for LGBTQ+ people of the past, but only if their stories are adding something new to the conversation that hasn’t been discussed numerous times before. Naturally, there’s power and emotional resonance in the fact this is based on Fetisov’s tragic true story.

It’s just a shame it’s being told in such a cliché fashion. Rebane and Prior’s stiff, clunky dialogue doesn’t help matters either. Nor their refusal to offer Pozharskaya any semblance of depth in Luisa, who is plonked into the narrative to create a relatively pointless and underdeveloped love triangle that lands little impact.

It’s Prior and Zagorodnii’s magnetic chemistry that ultimately saves Firebird from its narrative misgivings. A genuine star in the making, the wide-eyed Prior shines as the gentle, introverted soldier trapped in a world that won’t allow him to express who he really is. As a love-sick soul torn between his heart and his head, Prior effortlessly captures the crippling torture of a gay man’s first great love.

As the dedicated fighter pilot trapped between his unwavering devotion to his country and his burgeoning love for Sergey, Zagorodnii’s performance is more restrained and measured, but no less captivating. We’re so accustomed to seeing Soviet soldiers portrayed as cold villains, so it’s a refreshing change to witness the intoxicating tenderness between these two lovers.

As someone who always seeks to champion queer cinema, I want to celebrate something like Firebird. For all its unfortunate faults, it’s still a film that’s completely worth your time. It’s hard not to be moved by this gorgeous love story, even if it’s one we’ve seen before. And, for all the progress in the gay rights movement, it’s a pertinent reminder that Sergey and Roman’s situation is one still faced by queer men and women in many corners of the globe.

Distributor: Rialto
Cast: Tom Prior, Oleg Zagorodnii, Diana Pozharskaya, Jake Thomas Henderson, Margus Prangel, Nicholas Woodeson, Ester Kuntu, Kaspar Velberg, Sergei Lavrentyev
Director: Peeter Rebane
Producers: Brigita Rozenbrika, Peeter Rebane, Tom Prior
Screenplay: Peeter Rebane, Tom Prior
Cinematography: Mait Maekivi
Production Design: Eva-Maria Gramakovski, Kalju Kivi, Frantseska Vakkum
Costume Design: Marjatta Nissinen, Mare Raidma
Music: Krzysztof A. Janczak
Editor: Tambet Tasuja
Running Time: 107 minutes
Release Date: 17th May 2022 (Australia)