Review of “Bigga Than Ben: A Russian’s Guide To Ripping Off London” (2007), director: Suzie Halewood , first published in “Sight and Sound” magazine Volume 18, Issue 11, November 2008.
Spiker and Cobakka, best friends and self confessed “Moscow scum” unwilling to do military service, plan an escape to Los Angeles, where they hope to make their fortune. Unfortunately, LA proves too expensive, so they depart for London, instead, with the ambition of making £2000 each – Spiker so he can pay for his impending nuptials, Cobakka to finance his fledgling rock band. Upon arriving, without accommodation, documents or much money, they find making it a lot harder than they expected. They are also racist and find it hard to adjust to London’s multiethnic make-up.
Forced to live in a shed and fired from a series of dead-end jobs, they hook up with the amoral Artash, dissolute son of a wealth Russian ex-pat. Artash, taking a large cut of their earnings, introduces them to a world of petty crime and hard drugs. From shoplifting through credit card fraud and mobile phone scams, they start to scrape together the money they need, finally moving into a grotty tenement flat, enabling them to make their way in slightly more legal ways.
Both Cobakka and Spiker are shown kindness by ethnic minorities and come to question their prejudices. Cobakka gets closer to earning an honest living as a night watchman, Spiker slips into heroin addiction after finding out his girlfriend has abandoned him. Cobakka feels he has earned the money he needs and the pair go their separate ways; a caption reveals that they will never speak to each other again.
This is a film straight from the nightmares of middle England. Based on Pavel Tetersky and Sergei Sakin’s cult Russian travelogue, it is the ostensibly true story of “Moscow scum” experiencing all the – rarely legal – highs and lows modern London has to offer. It plays neatly with the twin fears of marauding, amoral economic migrants and the spectre of a revived, belligerent Russia. Unwilling and unable to make an honest living they hook up with the roguish son of an ex-pat millionaire, who teaches them how to exploit the system for maximum reward.
Fresh from the clean-cut heroics of The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian (2008) and Stardust (2007), Ben Barnes gives a committed and vanity-free performance. He deftly imbues Cobakka with a grubby charm, but does not shirk from inhabiting the more unpleasant aspects of his character. Though essentially a two-hander, Russian star Andrei Chadov’s Spiker does – especially when he slides into drug addiction – sometimes feel like he is only there as a foil for his slightly more likeable friend. However, both are convincingly grubby; you can almost smell the sweat and stale fag-smoke that stains their clothes and skin, their broken English alternately threatening and endearing.
One of the key demands of Tetersky and Sakin was that the filmmakers did not prettify their story, that the bigotry and avarice that they had exhibited in real life were not glossed over on film. It is to Halewood’s credit that the film never allows them to be portrayed as simply victims or villains. Both protagonists – to start with at least – are portrayed as inveterate racists, treating members of London’s other ethnic groups with a mixture of disdain and disgust. Though both come to change their ways, some scenes and their casual use of racist slurs are genuinely uncomfortable. Though the hard faced amorality of the protagonists does makes them occasionally rather difficult to care about, it is the decision to face these specific character flaws that steers the film away from lazy moralism or sixth-form drama piety.
Although this is a rather lighter affair than Nick Broomfield’s “Ghosts” (2006) – a harrowing dramatic exploration of life as an economic migrant – both films manage to make mundane Englishness seem alien and extraordinary. Like Broomfield’s film, there are moments when through the screen we can, however vicariously, get some impression of how peculiar and oddly decadent Britain may feel to those unaccustomed to its strange customs and dull geography. Among the bile and squalor Halewood captures moments of remote beauty; dawn breaking over London, sunlight filtering through a smoky squat, Spiker spinning in a shopping trolley. The decision to shoot on 16mm stock – whether by choice or necessity – gives the film the sketchy immediacy of a YouTube video diary.
A surfeit of visual invention does paper over some of the cracks, the episodic narrative often seems a bit too slight to support a full-length feature. Some scenes seem to serve little narrative function and the film sort of ebbs to a close rather than reach any kind of emotional climax; there is no catharsis for the characters, they just move on. But then, it feels truthful; a little money is earned, lessons are half-learnt, there are no amazing revelations. It is rather insubstantial, a wisp of a film, but unlike the sinister stereotypes of tabloid nightmare these anti-heroes are deeply human. At its best we share the freewheeling exuberance that can only be known by those who have known true oppression grabbing freedom, in all its dirty, pretty glory.