Point of View - 'Mysteries' of Filmmaking
I have recently watched a Russian TV period detective series – ‘Mysteries of Mrs. Kirsanova’ – ‘Тайны госпожи Кирсановой’ (2018). The series, set in 1878, during the reign of the tsar, Alexander II, consist of two-part stories, each focusing on a different crime taking place in Bogorodsk, a Russian provincial town some 40 kilometres away from the city of Nizhny Novgorod.
The main character of the series, Larisa Dmitrievna Kirsanova (Olga Lerman), is a clever, opinionated, liberal, educated truth seeker who comes from the Russian-Turkish war of 1877-1878, where she has served as a nurse, and settles down in Bogorodsk, at the estate of her aunt.
Unlike any other woman in town, Larisa Dmitrievna possesses strong analytical and deductive skills, which she applies to solving local mysteries, digging out the often ‘inappropriate’ truth. But the intrigues of inhabitants of Bogorodsk are not the only riddles that Mrs. Kirsanova racks her brains to solve. The young woman also wants to find out what has happened to her fiancée, Pavel Bestugev (Anton Baturev), who vanished without a trace on the day of their wedding. As Larisa Dmitrievna progresses in her investigation, she finds in the life of her fiancée traces of the criminal past. The only ‘inappropriate’ truth out of many other uncovered by her truths that she fiercely resists.
Overall, the series appear to be well-made and skilfully directed. The costumes of the characters, main and supporting, sit well, and the mysterious crimes that intrigue the viewers are abound. Yet, while watching the series I had a feeling that something was amiss with this period drama-detective series. Specifically, with the principles, rules, views, and hierarchy of the period it covers.
Take, for example, the names of the characters. As a screenwriter and author, I’m more than aware of the importance of choosing right, meaningful names that resonate with characters, their personalities, life styles, status, and roles they play in the plot. What struck me in the TV series ‘Mysteries of Mrs. Kirsanova’, however, was more than occasional mismatch of the names and the characters. It seemed that either intentionally or unintentionally, the screenwriters of the series have assigned the names typically given in Russia of the time to the servants to the nobility and vice versa. If it was done intentionally the message certainly have been lost in translation. For, the approach only created a confusion not a revelation. In addition, the names that, as a rule, were used in religious settings, such as churches, monasteries and religious institutions, in this series were assigned to criminals coming from lower classes, e.g. servants (or house surfs), and peasants. Which further confused everything.
Another inconsistence which drew my attention is that some of the names of the main characters have been ‘borrowed’ from the famous books of Russian classics. For example, the name of Mrs. Kirsanova – Larisa Dmitrievna - is the name of the main female character in the play ‘Without A Dowry’ by Ostrowski. The two women have nothing in common in terms of their personal and otherwise lives. Another such ‘plagiarism’ is the name of the chief inspector in the series – Porfiry Petrovitch - the exact replica of the name of the investigator in the book of Fyodor Dostoevsky ‘Crime and Punishment’. Again, the two men are not in the least resemble each other.
Thus, the question arises: why the screenwriters had to plagiarize the classics in terms of character names and what did they exactly wanted to achieve by this?
But, the names of the characters are not the only glaring inconsistency in the series. The criminals and their crimes are yet another stumbling block.
The criminals in this series come either from the ruling classes or the serving ones, leaving the middle class of intelligentsia and the government out. Perhaps, such choice is explained by the wish of the screenwriters to show the motives and motivations existed in the named classes only. However, the presented reasons and crimes coming out of them resemble more of modern-day ones rather than the ones that were typical for the above segments of society back in 1878. The major problem here is that this TV series characters drawn from the serving class appear way too independent, educated, and free willed in comparison to their real-life contemporaries. The period covered in the series is the first decade after the abolishment of slavery in Russia and many of servants and peasants of the time were the former slaves or house serfs who did not even know what the freedom looked like, nor did they have any education, personal views or even voice in any of the important or unimportant matters.
Although, the moral among the serving classes were usually low, those people were still not on the level where they could plot elaborate crimes and fate twists in their own lives let alone the lives of their masters.
What for the nobility, it chiefly consisted of females and males whose roles were clearly defined and not questioned by either. Women had very basic home education and resorted to either leading a family life raising children or to creating intrigues, attending parties and immersing in love affairs. And men were either wasting their lives gambling, partying and womanising or were involved in power and money struggles. Thus, the crimes committed by the people of this class could revolve around gambling debts, love intrigues, dividing of power or inheritance related rows.
However, in the series, female and male roles blend into each other and the crimes they commit do the same, creating confusion, misrepresentation and misinterpretation. Women tend to commit the crimes of men and men of women. In such a setting, fragile women have strength to strangle men and women to hit strong young men with walking sticks, and men succumb to weaving intrigues connected to love affairs. Personally, I am inclined to think that this particular way of presenting the crimes of 1878 is a personal preference of screenwriters, four out of whom are men and one is a woman. With such gender imbalanced writing team, the viewers are mostly presented the male point of view of the matters, which of course defers from the female one. Perhaps, this explains lack of interesting, bright, realistic, well-developed female characters. Apart from Mrs. Kirsanova, the rest of female characters of the series tend to be flat and similar to each other. Male characters, on the other hand, are quite diverse and more 3D in their expression.
Overall, the TV series ‘Mysteries of Mrs. Kirsanova’ – ‘Тайны госпожи Кирсановой’ (2018) is well-made, but the impression it leaves, unfortunately, is of confusion and disturbance. However, should the basic principles described above been followed, the TV series would have been simply fabulous!