Letter to Brezhnev, directed by Chris Bernard in 1985, is a low-budget British movie set in Liverpool during a period in the city’s history when it was suffering from unemployment and Thatcherite ‘managed decline’. Alexandra Pigg and Margi Clarke play Elaine and Teresa, two young women determined to enjoy their night out on the town. Teresa works in a slaughterhouse and, after pinching a lecherous guy’s wallet, is now cruising the nightclubs looking for sex. Elaine is more romantic: she is unemployed and sick of the mundane poverty of the city and her life. She follows Teresa hoping that she will find love and a future. When they bump into two Russian sailors who are on a politically sanctioned trip to the UK, they both find what they are looking for. Teresa ends up having a steamy night with Sergei, played by Alfred Molina, whilst Elaine falls head over heels with Peter, played by Peter Firth. Unfortunately the sailors are forced to leave the next day, leaving Elaine heartbroken but determined to find a way into the closed USSR to be reunited with her newly found love. Her plan, as the title of the movie suggests, is to write to the Soviet premier in the hope that he will allow her in.
It’s a film in which the conflict between romance and reality is never far from the surface both on-screen in the narrative trajectories of the characters, and off-screen in the troubled, financially challenged production. For a start is the plot. The difference in motivation between the two main female characters is matched by the political tensions and harmonies between the working class centre of Liverpool and the communist Soviet Union. Elaine is romantic and idealistic, willing to suspend her cynicism and preconceptions about the sailors they encounter, whilst Teresa is street-wise and ballsy, but under the surface is timid and tied to her depressing job and the city. Throughout the film, the romance and the reality of Elaine and Teresa’s night out take turns in the narrative: the girls steal a wallet (romance), the men they steal from pursue them through the streets (reality); the girls book two hotel rooms for them and the sailors (romance), but Elaine finds that Peter is reluctant to sully the one night they have with meaningless sex – he prefers the reality of them sharing stories.
This balance extends to the depiction of the city itself. Letter to Brezhnev is as much about the different sides to Liverpool as the early films of Jean-Luc Godard were about Paris: getting under the surface of the city; seeking the reality of urban life whilst also romanticising it. The two girls’ journey through the centre of Liverpool has a fairy-tale quality, as they cross from alley to alley and in and out of nightclubs the labyrinth-like nature of the city adds to their sense of a quest. The film was made on a shoestring, so the director made the most out of the locations he had available, from the streets to the homes of the production crew. Liverpool even doubles briefly as the skyline of Moscow. Under the surface of this mythologised space, however, the degeneration and decay of the city is evident. Elaine’s debate about whether to stay where she knows, unemployed but safe, or make the trip to the USSR, is a quandary only made possible by the parallels drawn between Liverpool and Moscow. The film seems to be telling us that the two countries are similar, but whilst Russia has a communist (and possibly, as it turns out, romantic) leader, the UK has an invisible, malevolent right-wing government who is grinding the industrial north into the ground. It’s a film that seems to be calling for a reassessment of the anti-communist demonization of the 1980s.
Letter to Brezhnev is a sentimental and roughly directed film, but one with a core of social and political insight. The lack of budget is clear, and, whilst commendably raw and edgy, the dialogue, at times, seems in need of refining. But at its heart is a well mined seam of tension between the basic romantic quandary of its main characters, and the political situation they find themselves in.