This film is set at the beginning of the 17th century when Russia had a severe crisis over who was to inherit the throne after the Tsar died. There are many contenders but none too genuine. This was called the time of `chaos' as the people are leaderless, and the Poles had invaded Russia. Their Hetman (Michel Zebrowski) has captured the Tsarina Kseniya Godunova. He has fallen in infatuation with her and sees marriage to her as a way to legitimise his false claim to the throne. Throw into the mix a lowly serf Andrei played by Pyotr Kislov, he really does love the Tsarina and through guile and cunning sets about saving her and in the long run, Russia too.
The opening sequences start in 1605 and we get a pocket `history' lesson to take us up to date. This is not a true history lesson though and quite happily mixes up faith, mysticism and myth with all the action. We have a holy man who won't come down from his tree until the chaos has ended, lots of iconography (very Russ indeed) and a recurring theme of Unicorns. Whilst we are thrown into the current plight of the characters, the missing detail is told in vivid flashback, so by about half way through you get to understand the real histories of those involved and the attraction Andrei has for the Tsarina.
This has been criticised for being anti -Polish, well of course it is, this is a Russian film and the Poles are the enemy. They do get the best costumes though, they are all armoured up and wear wings to give them the look of avenging angels. That is one of the many strengths of this film, the costumes are stunning. Add to that the overall excellent cinematography and attention to detail and this makes for a real visual feast.
There is buckets of action too and it is done really well, the CGI that had to be used in places is so good that you really don't notice and as good special effects should do, it actually adds to the emotional upsurge that was intended. Look out for the siege sequences, they are brilliant. My only complaint is around the subtitles, not everything is translated especially the Italian parts; and on occasion the Russian translation is over the English translation, making it virtually impossible to read.
That aside, this is a rollercoaster of a film, with action, intrigue, romance and a ruddy great story with excellent performances all round. Vladimir Khotinenko has done a masterful job in the direction of this film, and at 143 minutes has done superbly to keep the momentum up throughout. If you like action films based on historical events, then you will not be disappointed. If you want a history lesson this is not for you, but I thought it was just excellent and intend to watch again very soon.