Enemy at the Gates (review)

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Saving Jude Law

When film fans complain that movie stars just ain’t what they used to be, I can only imagine that they have never seen Jude Law on film. True, Law looks like he stepped out of a magazine with a name like Silver Screen Idols, cover date September 12, 1942. But he emits that Golden Age radiance, too — a preternatural ease onscreen, a larger-than-life aura, a dazzling presence that evokes glorious black-and-white films about people wearing evening clothes and sipping martinis and making terribly witty observations about life. Law has It the way that Cary Grant had It.

So there’s something especially viscerally pleasing about seeing Law play a character from that era in Enemy at the Gates, a beautiful, satisfyingly old-fashioned movie that you could almost believe is a remake of one starring, oh, a young Orson Welles, Rosalind Russell, and Joseph Cotten. And what a boost for the war effort it would have been. Buy war bonds now!
In good 40s propaganda style, director Jean-Jacques Annaud sets the stage for his somewhat true tale with dramatic maps of Europe, Hitler’s evil stain spreading rapidly eastward toward Russia and Stalingrad — an appropriately bombastic voiceover alerts us that “the fate of the world” will be decided in this city, named for the Russian leader, the loss of which would be a devastating defeat, both morally and actually. Into the citywide, guerilla-style Battle of Stalingrad is thrown a country kid from the Urals, Vassili Zaitsev (Jude Law: Love, Honour, and Obey, The Talented Mr. Ripley), An ordinary infantry soldier, he and his fellow grunts are little more than cannon fodder, herded like cattle toward the frontlines, only every other man receiving a rifle (the other half get to carry the bullets).

Sheer dumb luck puts Vassili in the path of Danilov (Joseph Fiennes: Shakespeare in Love, Elizabeth), an upper-crust political officer, who witnesses Vassili’s extraordinary talent with a rifle, as he picks off Nazi officers with an uncanny marksmanship. Vassili gets promoted to the sniper division, Danilov writes up his deeds in the army newspaper, and the Russian military, in dire need of new inspiration for its horrendously demoralized troops, turns a shepherd kid from the mountains into a national hero.

Is Law convincing as a rural Russian naif? Not in the least — he’s just too glamorous, even as unshaven and filthy as he is throughout the film. Can you take your eyes off him onscreen? Not for a moment, and it’s not just those piercing baby blues gazing soulfully out from behind the dirt. Law exudes that paradoxical movie-star warmth: unattainable for mere mortals such as ourselves, yet down-to-earth enough that we utterly empathize with him. Ditto for Rachel Weisz (Sunshine, The Mummy) as Tania, a tough but tender irregular soldier who falls hard for Vassili. After exchanging many longing, burning glances, they come together in one of the most intensely sexy, urgent, and even suspenseful love scenes I’ve ever seen — and they never even take their clothes off. It’s enough to make up for the disappointingly ordinary love triangle with Danilov that resolves itself in cliché.

Do we care that Fiennes is the only actor onscreen who even attempts the accent of the character he’s playing? Naw. Even Ed Harris (Stepmom, Apollo 13) as the German sharpshooter Major Konig, brought in to eliminate Vassili, is only momentarily distracting as the first American-accented Nazi ever to appear onscreen. (A Canadian colleague of mine is quite delighted to see someone finally equate Americans and Nazis.) Slow-moving duels — between Vassili and Konig, Vassili and Danilov, Vassili and Tania, between four intensely watchable actors — are the heart of Enemy, and none of the dueling particularly requires words as weapons.

Enemy at the Gates is a much grimier and authentic-looking film than its imaginary 1940s predecessor would have been — it shares a brutal gorgeousness with films like Braveheart and Saving Private Ryan, and it well earns its R rating for violence. But this is a film lovingly made from the recipe for classics: characters we like, portrayed by actors we love, in a story with timeless resonance.

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