The main draw of Despite The Falling Snow is a dual performance by Rebecca Ferguson, who shot this in between her Emmy-nominated work on The White Queen and her memorable breakthrough role in last year’s Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation. Adapted by writer-director Sharim Sharif from her own novel, this romantic thriller casts Ferguson as two women separated by time but connected by blood and a sequence of events that occurred in Moscow at the height of the Cold War.
In 1992, an American artist called Lauren (Ferguson) is curious as to why her weary uncle Sacha (Charles Dance) is so cagey about their family’s history and the circumstances of his defection from Russia thirty years prior. In particular, she’s beguiled by her aunt Katya (also Ferguson), of whom she is the spitting image.
As we learn from the film’s flashbacks to 1959, Katya is a staunch anti-Communist who is tasked with spying on Sacha, who was then a promising young government employee (and played by Sam Reid), for fellow spy Misha (Oliver Jackson-Cohen), but she finds herself falling for her mark. Lauren sets out for Moscow and with the help of political reporter Marina (Antje Traue), sets about trying to uncover what happened to her aunt.
If nothing else, Despite The Falling Snow proves what we already knew about Ferguson from Rogue Nation – she’s a bona fide movie star. As a leading lady, her smouldering screen presence holds up perfectly, with her Ingrid Bergman-esque qualities serving the film extremely well in the Cold War sequences as Katya. Her Lauren is less impressive, due to her affected American accent and being a generally less interesting character, but her performances generate some much needed heat here.
Sharif is no stranger to adapting her own novels for the screen, via her production company Enlightenment Productions, and sadly, although I’m not familiar with previous films such as The World Unseen and I Can’t Think Straight, you wouldn’t know it to look at this one. Even at 93 minutes, Despite The Falling Snow feels less like an adaptation than a mood reel for the source material, giving a précis of the story rather than a whole experience.
The way in which the film is staggered across two time periods is one of the main reasons, but even aside from the Frogger-like crossings between the past and present of the story, it also feels as if the film has been edited within an inch of its life. It feels abridged, almost as though the film has to come in under a time limit, and many of the important beats don’t really get time to land. In one particular case, Katya puts her foot down and tells Misha she’s not going to follow his instructions. The very next scene, she goes right ahead and does what she’s told. With a little extra screen time here and there, the story and its characters might have been that much more involving.
But as becomes abundantly clear, much of what matters to the plot takes place in the flashbacks and there’s a binary feeling to the way in which the film segues between time-frames, with much clunking thematic resonance. The smoothest of these comes when one Ferguson walks out of the state archive in Moscow after a dangerous mission, as another Ferguson walks in. Alas, Lauren is going in there to read about this sort of thing, and so, even the slicker transitions slide the film right back into sub-Who Do You Think You Are procedural before it can really gather any steam.
There’s also a massive cognitive disconnect between the older and younger incarnations of characters. Charles Dance here is very much the same Charles Dance who wrapped in a couple of days on five other films in the last year or so and while a more game Anthony Head shows up with a spectacularly scruffy and tobacco stained performance as another key player, neither of them is around much and neither has much in common with their respective characters in the main plot.
You could argue that this deepens the central mystery, wondering how the characters changed so much over the years, except that this mystery is maddeningly obvious from quite early on, thanks to the deceptively convoluted structure. The opening shot and subsequent prologue spell much of it out in the first ten minutes and the focus drifts right up until the unsatisfactory climax.
Her reliable performances aside, Ferguson is also the subject of Despite The Falling Snow‘s most striking image – a trompe-l’œil portrait of Katya in an exhibition of new Russian art in 1992, in a gallery setting which is revisited time and time again on the way to an anti-climactic revelation. It’s an image that is somehow less crisp and clipped than the film it’s in, which is perhaps the main reason that she and the artwork are all that linger from this segmented and suspenseless romance.
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