Letter to Brezhnev was a small independent film that was made on a shoestring budget but ended up becoming an international hit in 1985. It also one of the first films to come out from Palace Pictures, which initially started as a video distributor–Palace emerged from the work of producer Stephen Woolley in programming the Scala cinema in London.
The film is now considered a classic of ’80s British filmmaking and of Thatcherite Britain. The film is about two local lasses, Elaine (Alexandra Pigg) and Teresa (Margi Clarke), in Liverpool during the mid-’80s. Elaine is out of work due to the high levels of unemployment in the North due to Thatcherism, and Teresa is working in the great job of stuffing chickens’ bottoms. They spend their nights out in the Liverpool club scene, and while Teresa is just looking for fun, Elaine dreams of getting out of Liverpool and finding love.
Everything changes when they meet some Russian sailors Peter (Peter Finch) and Sergei (Alfred Molina) in a nightclub. They spend the night together, but the sailors have to ship out the next day. Elaine falls in love with Sergei and hopes to go to Russia as a way to escape her working-class life and be with the man she loves. However, it becomes a media sensation, with government bureaucracy and being warning off by her family coming in between Elaine and her trip to Russia.
The performances from the four mains are solid. Molina was already a seasoned actor and had the least amount to do. The rest of the leads were already friends before they made the film, so they have natural chemistry.
Letter to Brezhnev came out at roughly the same time as My Beautiful Laundrette, which was an even bigger success, and had a much more subversive take on Thatcherism (as a result, it has stood the test of time even better than Letter to Brezhnev).
The film deals with the demonisation of Soviet Russia by the west, and asks the viewers to reassess their own misconceptions of Russia. However, obviously everything changed in the Soviet Union by the end of the decade, even though there is certainly relevance to the current (and at times rightful) condemnation of Russia in today’s media. The film’s politics are very much in the background, however, with the love story in the forefront, which is obviously why the film ended up having universal appeal.
The release from BFI has a healthy dose of special features, including new interviews with the main leads (except for Molina, who I’m sure was just busy.) Pigg and Firth ended up becoming a couple in real life, which might give some closure for people who were a bit miffed by the ambiguous ending. The disc is rounded off by commentary from the director and screenwriter, a vintage making-of featurette, the trailer, an image gallery and a booklet with new writing on the film. The release is dual-format.