The eponymous character in Elena operates in an agonizing middle ground between the upper and lower classes, and between equal partner and live-in maid. Played by Nadezhda Markina in a performance that suggests a woman who’s both emotionally vulnerable and tough as a pack mule, she’s the second wife to a wealthy, paternalistic man (Andrey Smirnov), but they don’t share a bed and her devotion to him looks a lot like subservience. Meanwhile, she travels a great distance regularly to see her fuck-up son and his family, which includes a fuck-up teenage grandson who needs money to buy his way out of the army. After Markina’s husband has a heart attack, she encourages him to patch up his relationship with estranged, manipulative daughter Yelena Lyadova, but the reunion goes so well that he decides to give her all his money.
The decisions Markina makes from there bring Elena into compelling moral territory, as she weighs her responsibilities to her husband against the needs of an extended family that takes advantage of her in different ways. Shooting in crisp, elegant widescreen compositions, gifted Russian director Andrey Zvyagintsev—whose auspicious 2004 debut The Return brought him international acclaim that his follow-up, 2007’s The Banishment, squandered—poises Elena beautifully on the boundary between family melodrama and high suspense. Through Markina’s torn allegiances, Zvyagintsev digs deep into matters of inheritance and how much we truly owe the people we love.
Zvyagintsev contrasts Markina’s two worlds so sharply they might as well be on separate continents—it’s an endless train ride to get from one place to another—but the common denominator between the wealth and decadence of her husband’s home and the shabby apartment complex where she visits her extended family is her own subservience. Yet when her economic survival is at stake, Zvyagintsev reveals her to be considerably craftier and more deceptive than expected, compassionate and relatable yet capable of matching wits with the highly suspicious Lyadova. Though it unfolds patiently and methodically, Elena pulses with tremendous tension as the stakes increase—a terrific Philip Glass score helps in that department—and a couple of sharp, surprising turns in the final minutes catapult the film in an unexpected direction. It’s an austere Russian drama with shades of Hitchcock.