You'd be forgiven for thinking that Enemy At The Gates is yet another big-budget Hollywood take on World War Two. It certainly has all the requisite ingredients. There's the Big Romance, the charismatic star (Jude Law), plenty of characters ready and willing to die for their ideals and, most importantly, there's the enormous set-pieces - - from the innumerable extras storming the German frontlines to the massive Luftwaffe air raids.
But, apart from sharing the ferocity of its battle scenes, this ain't Saving Private Ryan. The fact that Jean-Jacques Annaud's latest is the first major Western production to explore the war from a Russian point of view is the big tip-off that it's something different. This is very much a European World War Two movie, with British actors in key roles, a French director and largely continental financing. Why would Hollywood stump up all the cash when its primary audience will probably be surprised that the Russians were in the war at all? The scale of the battles and the depiction of war-torn Stalingrad are impressive, but arguably Annaud's biggest coup was securing the money (more than $85 million, making it the most expensive production yet shot in Europe) to pull it all off.
But the big-gun theatrics fail to distract from some excellent central performances. Law proves a first-rank leading man, radiating intelligence, nobility and sex appeal, even (or, indeed, especially) when he doesn't have a line of dialogue. As Vassili's sharp-shooting nemesis, Ed Harris is equally impressive, managing to draw sympathy and humanising the faceless Germanwar machine while also making Konig a convincingly chilling killing machine.
Fiennes, meanwhile, holds his own, even if he lacks the screen time to match his character's complexity, but Rachel Weisz is little more than window dressing to attract female viewers via the film's romantic subplot. And it's this element which lets Enemy down slightly. The suspense-filled central narrative, which presents a war of wits and waiting as the two adversaries stalk each other in the battle-blistered city, is somewhat diluted by Annaud and Alain Godard's hydra-headed screenplay.
Not only does it set up a love triangle to play out between Law, Weisz and Fiennes, but also attempts to wax lyrical on the role of hero-worship, Soviet hypocrisy, honour and betrayal and, of course, the nature of heroism itself. In attempting to cover so much ground, the script merely scratches the multiple surfaces, sadly undermining the impact of Annaud's vivid battle scenes.
Yet you can't dispute the fact that the Gallic helmer's latest is beautifully shot, rich in atmosphere and far more dynamic than his turgid last effort, Seven Years In Tibet. It's great to finally see a movie which so effectively combines European sensibility with Hollywood spectacle.
Blood, bombs and bullets. Jealousy, romance and intrigue. This tense, based-on-fact drama's got 'em all in an old-school war movie made in Eurovision. Director Annaud may try to cover too much ground, but Enemy At The Gates remains a thrilling take on one of World War Two's most overlooked conflicts.