05/18/2012 07:54 am ET Updated Jul 18, 2012

Movie Review: Elena

Though billed as a Russian film noir, Elena skimps on the noir, and more's the pity.

Instead, it's a disciplined, controlled and ultimately disappointing drama of family tension and murder. The crime does not go unpunished, but the punishment seems mild to the point of nonexistence.

Nadezhda Markina plays Elena, second wife of Vladimir (Andrey Smirnov), a retired businessman of means. They live in a posh penthouse apartment in Moscow, sharing the same bed from time to time but keeping separate bedrooms.

Their individual children are the only source of friction in their lives. Her son Sergey (Aleksey Rozin), from a previous marriage, is an unemployed ne'er-do-well with a teenage son and a baby; Elena helps them out financially, but it's a sore subject with Vladimir, who wants nothing to do with Sergey. When Elena asks him for money to help Sergey's son Sasha get into college to avoid the army, Vlad refuses.

Elena, in turn, disapproves of Vlad's daughter from his first marriage. Katya (Yelena Lyadova) is a drug-taking party girl who lives off Vlad's money but rarely comes to visit him.

Then Vlad suffers a heart attack -- and announces to Elena that he's finally going to write a will. Said document will leave her their apartment and an annual annuity -- but will bequeath the bulk of his money to Katya. And no, once again, he will not help Sasha with the college funds.

So Elena, who met Vlad when she was a nurse and he suffered an attack of appendicitis, begins to think the unthinkable. How can she get rid of Vlad before he writes that will -- with the lawyer set to arrive the next day?

This is the kind of material James M. Cain would have devoured easily, turning it into a twisted tale of murder, deception and betrayal. Director Andrei Zvyagintsev, on the other hand, wants to do something more subtle, invoking the law of unintended consequences. In the end, Elena unwittingly constructs her own prison, with the threat of arbitrary violence apparently lurking in her future. But not necessarily.

It's slowly wrought and not very satisfying, given what's come before. Zvyagintsev sets up antagonists, then has them shake hands and return to their neutral corners. After an entire film of quiet, staid camerawork, he springs a sequence at the end of violence and darting, handheld imagery meant to shock us with its revelation. But it's not shocking, only random -- and unsatisfying, to say the least.

His cast is solid, with Markina particularly resourceful as Elena, pragmatic yet appalled at the same time, about her willingness to do what she sees as her only way out.

But Elena is too even, too bloodless (in all senses of the word) to be as rewarding as it ought to be. It's a story about someone creating her own personal hell and being forced to live in it. But hell doesn't seem particularly unnerving at the end.

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