With a thoughtful and introspective tone, this film continually surprises us as its story unfurls and a young doctor's life takes a strange and portentous turn, colliding with one of history's most notorious figures.
In 1952 Stalin (Dussollier) "purges" the Kremlin of what he thinks are evil Jewish doctors. But he continues to get ill, so he has Dr Anna Atlina (Hands) brought to treat him. She's shocked at meeting the infamous premier, especially as he's heard she has a magnetic power in her hands. She helps alleviate his pain, and as she leaves he threatens her with execution if she ever tells anyone. Her entire life changes bewilderingly as a result, and she never knows when Stalin will summon her next.
Told completely from Anna's point of view, first-time filmmaker Dugain infuses the movie with real life. Anna and her scientist husband Vassili (Baer) clearly enjoy trying to get pregnant (the neighbours actually complain), and they visit Anna's mother (Benoit) and scruffy Uncle Anton (Segal) for an awkward weekend in the country. Their life is plagued by the everyday struggles of Soviet Russia, and then things take a nightmarish turn for both of them as Anna secretly enters this shadowy world at the very pinnacle of power.
The realities of life in 1950s Moscow are conveyed with an almost offhanded quality that quietly blends both humour and terror with matter-of-fact honesty.
At Anna's office, no one understands how it can be that she's arrested one day and back at work the next day. And since we so quickly get to know the characters, where these events take them is surprising and often deeply disturbing. All of this is performed expertly by the actors, who beautifully underplay the characters to make us feel the ramifications of each increasingly chilling situation.
This deeply personal film is so cleverly well written, directed and acted that we can't pry ourselves from the screen. It's low on action and heavy on dark, often gloomy drama, but by letting us experience these events through Anna's eyes, these encounters with Stalin take on an almost mythical quality. And their growing relationship, as laced with mistrust as it is, is simply fascinating to watch.