The third feature from Andrey Zvyagintsev is an icy anti-thriller thick with tension and brimming with allegorical undertones. Nadezhda Markina is superb in the title role: a retired nurse from a modest background now married to a rich former patient. Despite occasional tenderness the couple live separate lives, with Elena acting more as housekeeper than matrimonial partner but seemingly accepting of her lot – in all but one regard.
Both have children from former marriages: on his side, a disdainful
daughter; on Elena’s, a feckless son. When a health scare introduces the
issue of inheritance, resentments seep through and the sanctity of family
is dramatically tested by money's corrupting influence. Throughout,
events are staged with masterly precision, with scenes turning on a
knife edge and nerves stoked by Philip Glass’s foreboding score. If The Return was Zvyagintsev’s calling card and The Banishment clarified his ambition, Elena is the film where the Russian director affirms himself one of contemporary cinema’s most assured voices.