At a crucial point in “Firebird,” two perfectly chiceled servicemen steal away from the Soviet Air Force base where they’re stationed for a skinny dip in the Baltic Sea. Behind craggy rocks and away from prying eyes, they kiss, before one gives the other a charged underwater handjob; As they jointly climax, director Peeter Rebane cuts to an image of two fighter jets blazing overhead, the lovers’ clenched moans drowned in a roaring sonic boom. Subtlety is in short supply in “Firebird,” a swooning gay romance that firmly supplants “Top Gun” as the queerest film ever set in the air force; it may even top Tony Scott’s closeted kitschfest for most phallic military imagery per frame.
But if such isolated moments of hot-and-bothered vulgarity suggest a winking exercise in heightened horniness, “Firebird’s” story of forbidden love in an oppressive authoritarian regime is otherwise played, for want of a better word, very straight indeed. Based on the late Russian actor Sergey Fetisov’s memoirs, drawn from his time as a Cold War conscript, this British-Estonian co-production shoots for “Brokeback Mountain” levels of honest heartbreak in its depiction of a long-term romance between two male soulmates thwarted by the laws and mores of their era.
That present-day Russia has scarcely moved on from this milieu lends additional political currency to a 1970s-set period piece that can hardly fail to move its audience on relatively old-fashioned terms: In his first narrative feature, Rebane speaks the language of classical melodrama when he’s not indulging in very softcore fantasy. He doesn’t speak it entirely fluently, however, just as the film’s script haltingly plays out in stiff, Russian-accented English, which can’t help but impose an air of phoniness on otherwise earnest proceedings.
If that commercial gambit gives “Firebird” a distinct Europudding flavour, it does at least permit rising British star Tom Prior — who also takes co-writing and co-producing credits — to make a sympathetic impression as Fetisov’s fictionalized alter ego Sergey Serebrennikov. A sensitive young private nearing the end of his two-year conscription stint at the Haapsalu airbase in Soviet-occupied Estonia, he’s eager to leave military life behind to study drama in Moscow. Abusive treatment from his hyper-macho commanders is balanced out by jovial friendships with dorm-mate Volodja (Jake Thomas Henderson) and base secretary Luisa (Diana Pozharskaya) — who carries a torch for dreamy Sergey that anyone with a passable gaydar might sense is not mutual.
Weeks before his departure, however, Sergey is assigned as an assistant to lantern-jawed fighter pilot Roman (Ukrainian actor Oleg Zagorodnii, resembling Don Draper in a perfectly tailored flight suit), and there’s an immediate, unspoken flicker of understanding between the two. It’s not long before suave, cultured Roman is whisking his awed junior off to Tallinn to watch the ballet (specifically the Stravinsky work that lends the film its title) and teaching him to develop photographs in very hands-on darkroom sessions — all while seemingly homophobic KGB heavy Zverev (Margus Prangel) surveys them suspiciously, waiting for the one false move that would land both men in prison under Russian law.
Just as “Firebird” is on the verge of tipping into a steamy uniform-fetish exercise, however, Sergey’s return to civilian life shifts the stakes. With army careerist Roman unable to follow him to Moscow, he must keep living a lie, while a newly bohemian Sergey flirts with opening the closet door. There’s poignant potential in this second act, but “Firebird” never deviates from the expected in its purply anguished dialogue, its one-note adherence to masculine archetypes, or indeed its bluntly schematic visual storytelling, as one forced image after another — floods of rose -red lighting, a seismic crack in a bedroom wall — stresses the odds facing this star-crossed relationship.
It doesn’t help that the primary force pushing Sergey and Roman together appears to be their considerable shared beauty. Though the script hands the former a rote, drip-fed backstory of childhood guilt and trauma, it lacks the vivid nuance of, say, Oliver Hermanus’ comparably themed “Moffie” in determining how its male desires and sensitivities are shaped and scarred over time by violent patriarchal administrations — here bluntly personified in the menacing form of Zverev, a cartoon villain routinely shrouded in smoke and shadow. “Firebird” crushes so hard on its admittedly rapturous boy-meets-boy romance that it barely sketches out a bigger picture. The queer community stifled and silenced to this day in Russia may see itself only intermittently in the film’s mood-lit mirror.