Sean Ramsay's 'Victory Day' Stumbles in Acting, Narrative

Despite Honest Intentions, Feature Debut From the UC Berkeley Alumnus Fails to Live Up to Noble Premise

Photo: Annie get your gun. Natalie Shiyanova plays Oksana Tihomirova, a small-town Russian girl in the movie 'Victory Day,' the feature-length debut from photojournalist Sean Ramsay.
Sean Ramsay/Courtesy
Annie get your gun. Natalie Shiyanova plays Oksana Tihomirova, a small-town Russian girl in the movie 'Victory Day,' the feature-length debut from photojournalist Sean Ramsay.

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Opening on trenchant images of Russia after the fall of the Soviet Union, Sean Ramsay's feature debut "Victory Day" falls short of crafting compelling fiction out of the contemporary gloom of post-Cold War Europe. The reasons for this aren't so much budget limitations as they are aesthetic and narrative shortcomings; in its attempt to mix visceral action with political intrigue, Ramsay's film fails to do justice to either genre, victimized by the hokey screenwriting and cardboard acting that so often plagues small-scale independent works.

One notion remains indisputable: Ramsay's efforts as producer, director, co-writer and star are certainly commendable, if jarringly uneven. The UC Berkeley alumnus and former Reuters photojournalist plays Sam Cassels, a brash, impetuous photographer who finds work at a local newsmagazine in Prague. After a series of photographic incursions into the city, Cassels zeroes in on potential story material: a mysterious prostitute (Natalie Shiyanova) and a billionaire Russian oligarch (Milan Kolik). Tall, brooding and jut-jawed, Ramsay plays his character with sufficient physical robustness, yet his lack of expression and one-dimensional delivery are immediately disorienting.

Enraged after his superior refuses to green-light his story pitch for fear of potential repercussions from the oligarch, Cassels quits his job and engages in an awkward confrontation with a belligerent co-worker. The narrative then switches briefly to follow prostitute Oksana as she escapes her captives, revealing another politically sensitive topic: sex trafficking. By this point, it's obvious that Ramsay wants to tackle bold agendas, but the whole enterprise has already begun to sink itself.

As narrative incongruities build on one another, ennui ultimately prevails. Oksana escapes and somehow bumps into Cassels. Together they embark on a mission to bring down the evil forces behind her captivity, eventually turning the tables in a prolonged confrontation with the oligarch himself. No matter that the brawny action-hero/damsel-in-distress cliche has already been hacked to death-Ramsay seems intent on building nearly every aspect of his story on hackneyed cinematic truisms. It doesn't help that the chemistry between him and co-star Shiyanova never amounts to anything significant.

By the time "Victory Day" reaches its action-filled conclusion, Ramsay's film has already drowned in a sea of self-imposed obstacles. That's not to say that his efforts to capture the lingering corruption and inhumanity of the former Soviet oligarchy aren't noteworthy; one admires his grasp of historical purpose behind the veneers of modern fiction, as evidenced in the quietly effective documentary footage scattered throughout the film. While they provide temporary respites from the unremittingly second-rate acting and stilted dialogue that pervade the film, these moments do little to change the fact that Ramsay's tepid approach to his art quickly wears out its welcome.

David Liu is the lead film critic. Contact him at [email protected]

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