At an Estonian air base in the Cold War a junior officer falls for a new lieutenant, leading to a forbidden romance which affects a number of lives in director Peeter Rebane’s romantic drama Firebird.
We’ll always have Moscowby Chris Drew
CAUTION: Here be spoilers
Youthful private Sergey (Tom Prior, The Theory Of Everything (2014)/em>) is offered a prestigious Air Force opportunity but dreams of pursuing acting. tOn the base he spends time with friends Volodja (Jake Henderson, debut performance) and Luisa (Diana Pozharskaya, Hotel Belgrade) with many viewing Sergey and Luisa as a potential couple.
With the all-seeing Soviet regime ruling the camp we see the trio of friends escaping the base for a late evening swim and having to try to hide from guards. There are hints of threats of violence on the base and a feeling of high tension.
When handsome chiselled-jawed lieutenant Roman (Oleg Zagorodnii, Oboroten v pogonakh) arrives on base, he kindly takes a photograph of Sergey, Luisa and Volodja and attracts interest from Luisa. Sergey soon finds himself assigned to drive the lieutenant.
The two men form a connection sparked by a shared interest in photography. While relaxing during one trip off base they hide from guards and Roman kisses Sergey, starting a forbidden relationship. Sergey is very quickly smitten.
However, an anonymous report is filed against Roman and an unnamed man, leaving them under suspicion from a KGB investigation and on high alert. In a thrilling scene they are almost discovered at Roman’s quarters by the menacing Comrade General.
As Sergey’s time at the camp comes to an end, he longs for he and Roman to be together in Moscow but the older, and far more military, senior man is under intense pressure to keep his position and has to push Sergey away.
Cutting to a year later and Sergey is revealed to be happily studying drama in Moscow but then discovers from Luisa that she has married Roman, as the love story formally becomes a love triangle.
A second time jump sees Roman temporarily stationed in Moscow, leaving Luisa at the air base, with he and Sergey now able to live together – albeit secretly – as they had planned.
A curious scene in Moscow sees Sergey’s acting friends freely mingle with Air Force friends and the secret couple, but leads to a moment of high drama and onto an emotional final chapter.
Firebird is handsomely shot and has a very 1990s feel to it as a sweeping epic romance, although a same-sex one, so it’s unfortunate that a number of plot developments can be easily anticipated. It is also an interesting decision to have Eastern European characters in Eastern Europe all speak in heavily accented English.
However, Prior (who also co-wrote the script with Rebane) maintains Sergey’s accent effectively throughout. He makes a captivating and emotional lead, all wide eyed youth and passionate longing. Prior makes Sergey easy to root for.
As Roman, Zagorodnii is a portrait of handsome stoicism, only letting his guard down when able to relax with Sergey but he could have been given more layers to explore.
While Roman could have been given more backstory, a traumatic story of Sergey’s childhood best friend is neatly revealed across a number of scenes and frequent flashes of a boy struggling under water.
The film is dedicated to Sergey Fetisov, who the protagonist is based on. Firebird is a likeable, if at times predictable, entry into the doomed romance canon.
Firebird premiered at the 35th BFI Flare: London LGBTIQ+ Film Festival and is available to screen as part of BFI Flare until 2h March as part of the UK-wide digital programme on BFI Player.