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There’s a powerful, moving story at the heart of Battle for Sevastopol. That, and being a beautiful production that almost enough to make up for its narrative and dramatic shortcomings.
Battle for Sevastopol is a biographical film about Lyudmila Pavlichenko (Yulia Peresild), a young woman that joined the Red Army during World War II and became one of the deadliest snipers in history. It’s a joint Ukrainian-Russian production that was released in cinemas last year and now out on DVD.
One of the first and most immediate problems with Battle for Sevastopol is an awkward framing device. The story of Lyudmila’s life is actually narrated by Eleanor Roosevelt (Joan Blackham) and while the majority of the film takes place on the frontline, there are several sequences set in 1942, when Lyudmila was part of a group sent to the United States to campaign for support in the war.
The scenes set in the USA feel tacked on and are simply not interesting. Lyudmila’s story is fascinating on its own terms, so the decision to frame it through the perspective of her relationship with Eleanor Roosevelt is just odd.
It does not help that every English-speaker besides Eleanor is obviously and unconvincingly dubbed for no discernible reason. It’s distracting and only further disconnects the American subplot from the main narrative.
The titular battle does not take place until very late into the movie, and for the most part the story is centered on Lyudmila’s life. The narrative focus is split between her rise through the ranks as a marksman and her romantic life and for the most part it works, even though by the end the movie has introduced three main love interests for her.
The drama is hit-and-miss. Certain scenes that should be very emotionally charged sometimes feel like they skip a beat, with characters changing their minds when it comes to very important decision in a blink of an eye. Other times, scenes are too dramatically overwrought, not aided by overbearing music or unnecessary narration.
When Battle for Sevastopol hits the mark, however, it does so with flying colors. When Lyudmila becomes a symbol of heroism for the soldiers of the Red Army, she is faced with a heavy burden – her duty is to stay on the frontline to inspire her comrades, but her injuries, both physical and emotional, are too severe for her to continue as she has. The movie would have benefited from focusing more on that aspect of the story, as opposed to the unnecessary scenes with Eleanor Roosevelt.
The production is by far the most impressive thing about Battle for Sevastopol. It’s a beautiful, visually striking film that lights up the screen with its attention to detail and cinematography. Occasional underwhelming special effect notwithstanding, the action set-pieces are also fairly impressive. The way the movie uses dirt to punctuate the action on the frontline is very effective.
Performances are solid across the board. Yulia Peresild is terrific in the lead role, and only falters slightly when her scenes in the USA call for her to speak in English. She has to go through a wide and complex emotional range and succeeds for the most part.
For all of its various problems, Battle for Sevastopol did manage to convince me that Lyudmila Pavlichenko was a hero and a remarkable woman, and not just because she took the lives of 309 enemy soldiers. The movie’s heart is in the right place and while it does not always deliver, its efforts and dedication are admirable.