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"A mind lively and at ease" is a blog by a first-generation Russian-Ukrainian immigrant Maria K. (Maria Igorevna Kuroshchepova). An engineer by education, an analyst by trade, as well as a writer, photographer, artist and amateur model, Maria brings her talent for weaving an engaging narrative to stories of life, fashion and style advice, book and movie reviews, and common-sense and to-the-point essays on politics and economy.

Friday, January 15, 2010

Book and movie review: Savage Hunt of King Stakh by Vladimir Korotkevich

Vladimir Korotkevich's Savage Hunt of King Stakh has quite a few things in common with Arthur Conan Doyle's The Hound of the Baskervilles. There is a depressing and creepy locale - the marshes. There is an heiress Nadzeja Janovska - the last direct descendant of an old aristocratic family - whose father died under mysterious circumstances. There is a terrifying family curse, set into motion by a long-gone ancestor in his pursuit of power. There is a group of guardians and distant relatives, who are not below reviving the Janovski family ghosts - the Little Man, the Lady-in-Blue - above all - the vengeful spirit of King Stakh to lay their hands on the estate.

What shifts "Savage Hunt" from the mystery genre into the ranks of historic mystery drama is the setting - Belarus - and the time - late 19th century, the time of political unrest and struggle following the numerous re-zonings and divisions of Poland, Lithuania, Belarus and Ukraine between Russia and the states and kingdoms of Eastern and Central Europe.

An additional log in the local social fire comprises the decades of deterioration that befell the agricultural communities after the emancipation of the serfs in the 1860's. While the peasants were no longer property of their landlords, they were not given any provisions to survive on their own. The small plots of land given to the former serfs were not free - the peasants were expected to pay rent and give a portion of the crops to the landlords in the amounts that frequently exceeded the profits from the land, driving the peasants to bankruptcy and off the land - into the overcrowded cities in search of work.

The curse of the Janovski family, investigated by the young folklorist Andrei Belaretski turns out to involve a lot more than Nadzeja and the family palace - while trying to drive the young woman insane, the Savage Hunt of King Stakh also terrorizes and kills the local peasants, keeping the rest in the state of fear and submission or forcing them to run, leaving the land to be added to the possessions of the local landlords.

The social and historic aspect of the novel was not developed to the same extent in the movie by the director Valeri Rubinchik, which caused some criticism from the book's author Vladimir Korotkevich. While the abbreviations of that portion of the plot are understandable, due to the constraints of making a two-hour movie, it is still a pity, because they crumple up the detective investigation as well. The involvement of two key characters - Mrs. Kulsha's servant Rygor and Nadzeja's distant cousin and passionate admirer Andrei Sviatilovich - is also significantly cut down.

Rygor - the man who in the novel drives the physical, on-site aspect of the investigation using his hunting and tracking skills, as well as the knowledge of the local area and of the mood among the local peasants - in the movie is reduced to a bit of a primitive and unimaginative, albeit energetic, Dr. Watson to Belaretski's Sherlock Holmes.

Sviatilovich of the novel is an idealistic nearly Christ-like figure - a student who was expelled from the university for organizing a birthday celebration of an outlawed Ukrainian poet and returned to his native village to protect Nadzeja and use his knowledge to represent local peasants in court to give them a fair chance against the land owners. His death at the hands of King Stakh and his hunting party is truly a heart-rending event, causing the reader to ache and weep together with Sviatilovich's friend, fellow intellectual and truth seeker Belaretski. Sviatilovich of the movie, while still an inteligent character driven by the plight of the local population, has no passion for Nadzeja which makes his interest in the family aspect of investigation rather bland. When faced with Sviatilovich's death, Belaretski is still shocked and grieved, but not nearly to the same extent as he is in the novel - not in that last-straw-that-broke-the-camel's-back, "the dog just died" way.

The final confrontation between the small army lead by Belaretski and Rygor and the Savage Hunt of King Stakh is very much minimized in the movie. The description of it in the novel is ruthless, visceral and not at all for anyone with a weak stomach (for anyone who read Matthew Pearl's "The Dante Club" - it is THAT kind of realism). The movie version of the final battle is completely different, reducing the ruthless, gory aspect of it to the demise of Mrs. Kulsha, and the uncovering of the ultimate mystery - to Rygor's unveiling of King Stakh's hunters.

That said, the cinematic version of Savage Hunt of King Stakh earns quality points in a few other areas. First of all, the landscape and the sets are masterfully selected and shot, capturing the oppressive atmosphere of constant and deepening dread of the novel perfectly. Second, the cast is stunning. Boris Plotnikov with his large luminous eyes and gaunt face makes an incredible Belaretski, torn between his education the common sense of an enlightened intellectual and the atmosphere of mysticism that surrounds him at the Janovski estate Marsh Firs. His on-screen character incorporates some of the features of the novel's Sviatilovich, thus compensating for the blandness of Sviatilovich in the movie.

The exquisite Bulgarian actress Helena Dimitrova creates her own interpretation of Nadzeja, which doesn't match the one in the book to the letter, but is still a strong and powerful image. Her outward transformation from a frail not-much-to-look-at mousy girl into a fairy princess does not reach the same level as it does in the book. However, the evolution of her character is dramatic and well-portrayed, going from dread and desperation to resolve and toughness required to leave her home (which she never did in all of her eighteen years) and follow Belaretski to his trial for instigation of a peasant riot and - possibly - to an exile in Siberia.

Albert Filozov's character - the Marsh Firs butler Ignats Gatsevich - is older in the movie than he is in the book, and is not quite as overtly sinister. However, he is still quite creepy and suspicious to hold his own in the general setting.

Boris Khmelnitsky and Roman Filippov are perfect as the Varona/Dubatowk duo. Khmelnitsky is especially fine as Varona - a spoiled brat of an aristocrat, looking for a fight at every turn and clearly vexed by Nadzeja's preference toward Plotnikov's pale and gaunt Belaretski to his own gorgeous, powerful and smoldering self. Filippov's Dubatowk is a great buffer between the two - the actor obviously relishing a chance to play a multi-faceted character, whose complexity and intellectual chops are not obvious and not revealed until very late (sadly, this uncovering of Dubatowk is also abbreviated in the movie).

I cannot help but mention two excellent additions to the story, that are present in the movie but not in the book. One is the role played by the traveling puppet theater, whose performance supplies Belaretski with a clue toward solving the mystery of the Savage Hunt. In the novel the same train of thought is reached through other - more extensive means. In the movie, however, the critical bit of information could not be omitted altogether, but could not be introduced as extensively. So, the puppet show was used as a shortcut and worked very well.

Another piece is the character of the dwarf Basil, played in the movie by the incredible Russian little person actor Vladimir Fyodorov. Basil of the novel is significant only as a diversion and - once discovered - is sent off to a mental institution by Belaretski. Basil of the movie is a somewhat underdeveloped and poorly socialized but not a completely mentally deficient character. Left without protection of his brother, he takes to Belaretski, who discovers and feeds him, and later - to Nadzeja, who kindly allows him to stay at the house. In fact, Fyodorov's Basil adopts the role of a court jester with Nadzeja at his queen. His presence at the Marsh Firs and his pursuit of the carriage taking away Belaretski and Nadzeja give the movie a redeeming quality - a hope that when the two of them return, there will be at least one person, one friend waiting for them.

All in all, I believe that both the book and the movie are worth your while, as long as you are comfortable enjoying them as separate works of art. Sadly there isn't a good modern translation of the book, although you might be able to find one of the older editions at an on-line out-of-print book seller. The movie, however, is available on the DVD with English subtitles. Enjoy!

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