Russian Ark

Thu 27 Nov 2003 21.21 EST

The cinema has been around so long that the idea of a unique film is hardly credible. But Alexander Sokurov's Russian Ark has every right to the claim. It's a 96-minute film shot in one take and, almost as amazingly, it seems impossibly effortless.

I should warn you that unless you're a historian or a Russian expert, its subject matter may pass you by. I nearly gave up in the first half-hour as a 19th-century Frenchman wanders around a vast art gallery talking to our unseen film-maker. The way to tackle it is, I now realise, to watch the DVD doc In One Breath first, get an idea how and why it was made, and where Nicholas I and II and Catherine the Great fit in, and then watch the film, secure in the knowledge that, for example, Queen Catherine's stroll along a snowy road was shot in temperatures of -24C (endangering the cameras), and that 867 actors and 1,000 extras took part on the one day when St Petersburg's Hermitage Museum was closed. After three false starts, they made it at the fourth, which was also the last possible. It's a costume drama without much drama, but a Steadicam trip through a swirl of dances and political meetings representing 300 years of Russian history is sporadically intoxicating.