Russian pandemic thriller To The Lake, currently streaming on Netflix is proving to be something of a ‘sleeper hit’, amongst discerning genre critics at least.
It’s not the easiest sell to the casual viewer, especially in the midst of a real-world viral catastrophe. It is a show infused with recognisable eastern European dramatic motifs: it’s full of big ‘operatic’ events, bombastic characters, and endless tragedies that pile up on top of terrible personal disasters. The tone is dark, and there’s next to no humour. At times the pace can slow to a frustrating degree. To watch it with the original Russian soundtrack, means accepting subtitling throughout the eight episodes of the first series.
Cities in quarantine
But To The Lake remains an engaging watch, populated with richly flawed characters, lit up by some fantastic performances and surprising plot twists, and built around a premise that’s simple but extremely effective.
Based on the 2011 novel Vongozero by author Yana Vagner, the show (entitled ‘Epidemic’ in Russia) opens as an infectious virus threatens to overwhelm Moscow. Sufferers display symptoms of a hacking cough and discolouration of the eyes, and die within days. The country is sliding into chaos, and as lawlessness takes hold, the authorities are quarantining the cities. Everyman Sergei decides he must flee into the country’s hinterlands, and head for refuge in an abandoned ship on a distant lake to wait out the pandemic.
But Sergei’s personal and family life is complicated, and he’s soon heading up a convoy of cars packed with the people he loves, used to love or is obligated to. Under the acute risk of their flight to freedom, it proves to be a pressure-cooker environment for everyone involved.
To The Lake does rely on one of the most familiar tropes of ‘virus drama’ (the long, risky journey to safety and salvation). But it takes that idea and routes it through some really interesting and unpredictable directions along the way.
Inevitably, things go badly wrong for the group and latent tensions within the party become explosive (culminating in moments of graphic violence, and much less graphic sex). Illness and death haunt the drama, and there are many upsetting and harrowing scenes; along with hard-earned triumphs against adversity. There’s a grown-up moral texture to proceedings, as members of the group have to decide what they are prepared to do to ensure their individual and collective survival.
Director Pavel Kostomarov wrangles the show’s spectacular set-pieces to impressive effect. Yet it is the quieter, more intimate sequences that repeatedly deliver To The Lake’s most impactful moments. The silent, snowbound environs of the Arkhangelsk region of Russia provide a fittingly atmospheric setting, and the show is beautifully framed and shot throughout. Even when the drama dawdles, it’s still wonderful to look at.
Kostomarov puts his cast through what must have been a demanding and uncomfortable shoot. The whole ensemble is consistently strong, but amongst the group Viktoria Agalakova (as the precocious, rebellious young Polina) and Yury Kuznetsov (as her boorish alpha-male father) stand out. Not unexpectedly, this epic Russian drama is infused with the ‘big’ themes of loyalty, commitment, forgiveness, betrayal and regret. But there’s more than enough action, and sufficient momentum, to keep this dystopian road-trip moving towards what’s an inspired conclusion (and an enticing cliffhanger, if the show is recommissioned).
With its stark sensibilities, To The Lake won’t be everyone’s bowl of borscht. But if you’re in the mood for a thriller that’s both muscular and mindful, this comes recommended. Pour yourself a large vodka, chuck another log onto the open fire, and hunker down to savour the vicarious pleasures of joining a flight from a pandemic in the midst of the bleakest of Russian midwinters.