A love story based on a novel by George Feifer, The Girl From Petrovka doesn't totally work but it doesn't totally fail either. The unfamiliar backdrop of Cold War-era Moscow - where paranoia and secrecy could be the difference between free life or a stint in a Siberian labour camp – adds something new and interesting to an otherwise familiar 'odd-couple' romance. The film benefits too from good performances, especially Hal Holbrook as the male lead, Goldie Hawn as the female lead, and Anthony Hopkins as a secretive wheeler-dealer who is a friend to them both. There is a remarkable story about Hopkins' role in the film which goes like this. When he learned he had got the part, he spent a day trawling through the second-hand bookshops of London in search of the original George Feifer novel which he wanted to read to get a better idea of the character. His search proved unsuccessful so he headed to the railway station to catch a train home
and there, on a seat, lay a discarded copy of the very book he had been looking for. More extraordinary still, when he opened it he discovered it had Feifer's name inside, and was a personal copy the author had mislaid some years earlier!
American journalist Joe (Hal Holbrook) is a correspondent in Russia during the Cold War. Mourning the recent death of his wife, he decides to sell her belongings and asks his friend Kostya (Anthony Hopkins) to help him find a buyer. While selling off the things at a sort of unofficial bric-a-brac sale, Joe meets beautiful and mysterious ballerina Oktyabrina (Goldie Hawn). Oktyabrina lives in Moscow illegally, without the necessary papers, and runs the continual risk of being captured and sent to a labour camp by the authorities. Despite this, she is a vivacious and free-spirited individual whose carefree breeziness quickly attracts Joe. Beneath the façade, though, her personality proves a conundrum – outwardly warm yet privately stand- offish; eager to love yet simultaneously afraid of it. Eventually they do fall in love, but their relationship draws unwanted attention and leads to an unhappy outcome for the young ballerina.
Nicely scored by Henry Mancini and grandly shot by Vilmos Zsigmond, the film is pleasant fare despite its rather lowly critical reputation. Holbrook is more of a character-actor than a leading man, and certainly not your typical romantic lead
nevertheless he is very good as the lonely and cynical reporter living in a place and a manner far removed from home. Hawn is surprisingly good too as the freewheeling ballerina, a rare serious role for her (complete with decent accent). Sometimes the script is a little hard to follow, especially since the ultra-secret and paperwork-obsessed aspect of Russian life depicted here altered dramatically when the Berlin Wall fell and the Cold War came to an end. One can't help but suspect some familiarity with the book - or, at least, a detailed grasp of communist policies and lifestyles at that time - might be necessary for the viewer to fully appreciate the finer points of several scenes. The film's downbeat climax certainly packs an emotional wallop, however
and overall it provides a diverting couple of hours' viewing. A likable curiosity.