FORBIDDEN EMPIRE Review: One Steppe Up, Two Steppes Back
There aren’t many films set in Ukraine. I know this because I am Ukrainian, and I notice such things. Granted, it’s not like I’ve seen them all (I haven’t), but when the opportunity arises, I’m game for the chance to see a cinematic depiction of the motherland of my ancestors. Most recently, I’ve had the chance to review the excellent 2014 documentary Maidan, as well as the gloriously unhinged 1962 historical drama Taras Bulba. Imagine my delight when the opportunity to screen a Ukraine-set dark fantasy came my way in the form of Oleg Stepchenko‘s Forbidden Empire.
In the early 18th century, British cartographer Jonathan Green (Jason Flemyng) has designed a technological marvel that will help him accurately map the globe. When he sets out on an eastward course across Europe, he stumbles upon a unique community in a Ukrainian forest. Although it’s comprised mostly of cossacks, there appear appear to be demonic forces lurking about as well. When the daughter of a cossack leader falls victim to a mysterious beast and is made to lay in state for a year, he enlists the cartographer’s help.
Forbidden Empire is a maddening watch. It has a lot going for it, but those positives are undermined by basic storytelling missteps and egregious technical problems.
The film begins with cartographer Green in bed with a woman; they’re caught by her father (Charles Dance). The scene plays like a classic adventure movie opening gambit – the hero knows his way around women, gets caught, but manages to get away. It isn’t exactly tawdry, but it is lighthearted fun. Rather than make this the opening gambit and nothing else, Stepchenko, who cowrote the script with Aleksandr Karpov, repeatedly returns to the father and daughter (Anna Churina) to aid in telling Green’s story. Green and the daughter are in love and he is writing her letters detailing his exploits; he sends the letters via carrier pigeon so her father doesn’t see them. This makes for a cumbersome storytelling device, as the scenes with the father and daughter are painfully repetitious. He hates Green and reminds his daughter about it with snide comments, then she rebuts her father with professions of love for Green.
Letter, rinse, repeat.
These unnecessary father/daughter scenes also stifle the flow of action in Ukraine, which starts with considerable promise as a mysterious seven-horned beast is shown to have killed many young women (in a wonderful visual reveal). This eventually leads to several terrific sequences – a dark fantasy involving demonized humans, an eerie horror scene involving the dead girl, plus some solid action sequences – that are well-executed and quite effective.
The problem is the whole film’s narrative is slapped together. There are numerous plot lines that would be fine to compete with each other if they were more than just loosely-sketched ideas. There is a power-mad priest who rallies the village and rails against Green; a battle for a sack of a thousand gold coins; the presence (and peril) of an otherwise randomly inserted, mentally challenged girl; a love for that girl by a young villager; there is the occasional reminder of the conflict between faith and science; the suggestion that a circle of chalk (?!) can protect people from demons; and the potential for some residents to be possessed by demons (but not all residents).
It’s a collection of ideas rich with opportunities to add depth to the tale, and the film clocks in at just under two hours, which allows plenty of time. But the ideas are never developed satisfactorily; when the story swings around to one of them, it feels more like a reminder than a development. This suggests a lack of narrative focus by way of wanting to include as much in the film as possible (or hurl a lot at the viewer to disguise the flimsily constructed screenplay). Honestly, it feels like film begins in the middle of a larger tale, the first part of which we are not privy too.
The finishing stroke is the English language dub (the film was originally shot in Russian). It’s awful – to the point it’s a considerable distraction. The film would have been much better served with subtitles. It’s unfortunate because Stepchenko, with help from great work by cinematographer Vladimír Smutný, knows how to put on a visual show.
With its globetrotting cartographer and 18th century sense of discovery, Forbidden Empire has the framework to be the start of a fun franchise. But without a solid narrative foundation, that framework wildly sways as the story changes direction, and ultimately topples as a result.