Reviewed by: Amber Wilkinson

"They say it's the hope that kills you and Dvortsevoy lets enough light in to emphasise her plight." | Photo: Nord-Ouest Films

Desperation flows through every frame of Ayka, which marks a much darker turn for Tulpan director Sergei Dvortsevoy, as he swaps the warm and dusty open vistas of the Kazakhstan steppe for the cold and snowy claustrophobia of Moscow. Also taking centre stage is Samal Yeslyamova, in the title role, who is barely off-screen in this Dardennes-style concentrated character study of a woman on the brink.

Ayka has just given birth but she hasn't got time for the niceties of recuperation or motherhood, abandoning her baby in a hospital break-out because she is petrified of not getting paid for a makeshift chicken slaughterhouse job - even here there's a frenzied anxiety in the way the women rush to prepare the birds as though their lives depend on it. It comes as no surprise that her boss is in the business of stitching up his staff and we soon learn that this has huge implications from Ayka, a Kyrgiz emigre with no status, who owes money to the wrong sort of people and who is also suffering physical complications after having the baby.

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We watch as Ayka tries over the following days to overcome her circumstances, as doors are repeatedly slammed in her face and, as we take a handheld camera journey with her through the streets of the Russian capital, the rest of the world flows past her indifferently. They say it's the hope that kills you and Dvortsevoy lets enough light in to emphasise her plight. An unexpected offer of a job that becomes a labyrinthine task before its even begun or the Kyrgiz cleaner at a vets who offers her a hand of kindness.

There is a grim predictability about much of what happens but Dvortsevoy holds the interest thanks to the powerfully drawn Ayka, whose steely resolve ensures that although the odds are against her she never feels like a forlorn victim - even when the options are extremely limited, she is always calculating her next move. That may make her unsympathetic to some but that is part of Dvortsevoy's challenge to the audience - do we only feel empathy for those who submit to their circumstances and is it partially our indifference that puts and keeps them in these untenable situations in the first place?

If the action has a certain inevitability, it never feels anything less than realistic and Yeslyamova is mesmerising in the emotionally demanding central role.

Reviewed on: 28 Mar 2019
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A woman who has just given birth abandons her baby in the struggle to survive.

Director: Sergei Dvortsevoy

Writer: Sergei Dvortsevoy, Gennadiy Ostrovskiy

Starring: Samal Yeslyamova

Year: 2018

Runtime: 100 minutes

Country: Russia, Germany, Poland, Kazakhstan, China


Cannes 2018

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