Mother love is arguably the most powerful emotion in a woman’s psyche. It transcends everything, even the love of a wife for a husband or the dutiful nature of a female playing second fiddle to her mate.
In Elena the balance of power shifts from self-made Vladimir (Andrey Smirnov) to his wife, the titular heroine of the tale. But it’s in no way immediate: Elena finds herself forced to choose between her indolent, ne’er-do-well son and her cold, distant husband. The choice she eventually makes is what drives this portrait of familial loyalty.
Nadezhda Markina is perfect as the wife and mother who has married again and seemingly married above her station in life. Her stepdaughter makes this abundantly clear but there’s also a schism in the marriage with Elena and Vladimir sleeping in separate beds and Elena adopting the role of servant.
Is it out of love? Of course not. Vladimir has money in the bank. Lots of it. Elena may have married for love but she also has roubles on her mind. And money talks.
Director and co-writer Andrey Zvyagintsev leads his audience like a pied piper through the gentle maelstrom that is Elena’s mind. Seemingly torn between her husband’s opinion of her child – and of remaining with him inside a bubble of comfort and middle-class attitudes – and journeying with cash and food to her wastrel and his brood, she offers only hints as to how the stand-off will conclude.
A Russian drama but nonetheless a universal story, Elena is that familiar fable: the worm that turned. Markina’s journey from docile spouse to manipulative quasi-villainess is a delight to watch and her out-manouevring of her key rival (Elena Lyadova as grasping daughter Katerina, antennae twitching) is a delight.