This Russian beauty hangs on the template of – that’s the best way I can describe it – 12 ANGRY MEN, the famous Reginald Rose teleplay which Sidney Lumet made into a movie starring Henry Fonda. But it’s so much more. I can’t recommend it highly enough.
In 12, director and co-writer Nikita Mikhalkov has expanded the tense jury-room drama both visually and metaphorically. Again, the defendant is from a minority: here, he’s Chechen, which many Russians despise. He’s accused of murdering his foster father, an army veteran. Twelve citizens of the post-Soviet state will decide his fate. But we diverge from the Lumet almost immediately. The Henry Fonda character, the lone juror who prevents an instant and rash guilty verdict, has none of the self-confidence that Fonda showed, and as we will later see, is far from a hero. We intermittently cut away from the jury room (here, a decrepit gymnasium) to follow the boy’s wretched life story in Chechnya, giving him more rounding than Lumet’s one slowly dissolving shot. Fans of the Rose original will see familiar setpieces: two knife scenes, the re-creation of the murder, etc. But even if you know the Rose by heart, there are several plot surprises in store, the final one presented by the director himself, who plays the jury foreman. However, we’re still talking about nothing more than an “opened-up” remake.
No, what makes this film great is a remarkable series of monologues: if memory serves, each juror has one, but I could be wrong. One by one, they tell their colleagues of their experiences in a crumbling country. The stories are by turns poignant, vaulting, horrifying, almost Shakespearean, and every actor wrings meaning from every syllable. Some of them seem to have nothing to do with the case: in fact, the speaker is called on it more than once. But to the filmmakers, the case is one giant metaphor for what Russia has become. Lee J. Cobb had a two- or three-line speech in Lumet about a violent confrontation with his son; his counterpart here, a racist cab driver, delivers an aria of anger, shame and grief. The Fonda character does the same, in telling a harrowing story of abasement and redemption. Mostly, this is brand new material that has no basis in Rose, and each actor astonishes as his dumbfounded fellow jurors (and the audience) listen in awe and wonder. Never, never have I been so moved reading subtitles and watching actors display their craft.
At 2:40, the movie’s a bit too long, but I wouldn’t have cut a word from any of the jury-room stories; it’s the interstitial footage that could use a trim. But that’s not a problem, only a quibble. See this one – don’t let it get away.