What better film to act as the opening night offering for the IFFB than ‘Transsiberian?’ Apart from the local ties of the director, (Brad Anderson lived for a while in Somerville and shot his ‘Next Stop
Wonderland,’ and ‘Session 9,’ in the area,) several of the film’s producers are also Boston residents.
‘Transsiberian,’ tells the tale of Roy and Jessie, an American couple finishing up missionary work in China, who decide to forego the boring airplane ride back to the states and instead take a train through
Russia, so that they can see this part of the world.
The train is a Communist-era model, ancient and run down, with a passenger manifest to boot. The couple soon meets another couple, Carlos and Abby. Carlos speaks English pretty well and Abby is
originally from Seattle, but seems to move about a lot. Jessie sees a lot of herself in Abby. A former wild child now having found a lifestyle and a husband she’s comfortable with, Jessie sees Abby as
someone just seeing what life has to offer, not necessarily a girl going down the wrong track. (So to speak.)
At one point in the trip, Carlos takes Jessie into his confidences and shows her his large stash of Russian nesting dolls. (The wooden box-like dolls that open to reveal another doll and then the whole act
repeats itself until a very small doll is revealed.) Roy is accidentally left behind at a stop, (he’s obsessed with trains, so the trip is a dream for him,) and Jessie is left alone with Carlos and things take a turn for the worse. Later on, Detective Grinko shows up and begins investigating and things take a turn for the even worse.
‘Transsiberian,’ is a movie about choices and how sometimes what seems like the wrong choice is actually the right one. Roy judges Abby to be a hippy with no real goal in life, while Jessie sees the sensitive
and inquisitive side. Detective Grinko is most definitely a hard and tough man, but there is a caring and sensitive side, such as when he shows off the broken watch he wears that used to be his son’s. At
first blush, Carlos is a nice, friendly guy, but perhaps something more sinister lurks behind his outward nature. At one point, Jessie resists telling the truth about what happened and one can see the
screws tightening both physically and mentally.
The acting is solid across the boards. Woody Harrleson and Emily Mortimer play Roy and Jessie respectively, and they do a good job with what they’re given. (In Harrelson’s case, apart from a train
obsession, not much.) Mortimer does an excellent job portraying a woman haunted by her actions. She’s also so thrown by what has already occurred, she doesn’t know how to react to what’s happening in the moment. However, the true star of the film is Sir Ben Kingsley, who plays Grinko. He does an excellent job of conveying a person with nice exterior but a hair-trigger temper. Grinko is somewhere between two of Kingsley’s most famous characters, Ghandi and ‘Sexy Beast’s’ Don Logan.
However, the actors are let down by Anderson’s script. The story, while attempting to be a Hitchcock-esque thriller, just doesn’t move at the pace one needs such things to move at. After a slow opening, I assumed that Anderson was just laying the groundwork and thought the story would take off like a rocket. Sadly it did not. If the film was going to be a character study, there were a few coincidences and happenstances that stood out greatly, as if Anderson and co-writer Will Conroy had painted themselves in a corner.
That said, ‘Transsiberian,’ is not without its charms and quirks. The movie’s cast is stellar and the direction is solid, but all the good work is, in the end, betrayed by a sub-par story. ‘Transsiberian,’ in
an attempt to surpass other movies through the ages set on trains, never flies off the rails.