In "A Letter to Brezhnev," a British movie that feels like a Russian gulag, Elaine (Alexandra Pigg) leads a life of quiet desperation. Lonely and on the dole, she whiles away the Liverpool nights with a pint and a pal, Teresa (Margi Clarke), whose own life is equally desperate (she wraps chicken innards for a living), but not so quiet.

Into these lives come two Russians, genial Piotr (Peter Firth) and bearish Sergei (Alfred Molina), sailors on shore leave looking for a good time. They find it. Sergei and Teresa pair off and go at it hammer and tongs. In the adjoining room, Elaine and Piotr spend a chaste night wishing on a star (I'm not kidding) and gazing into each other's eyes. After a sightseeing tour the next day, they're madly, and sadly, in love -- Piotr has to return to his ship, and to Russia.

Stolid, foursquare Elaine, with her wool mackintosh jacket and sturdy legs, turns out to be the adventurous one, crazy, peroxide-blond Teresa the home girl. What follows is Elaine's pining for Piotr and her attempts to reunite with him (that's where the letter to Brezhnev comes in). There are bad teeth in extreme close-up. There is self-consciously proletarian dialogue in the cadences of Ringo Starr, much of which is completely unintelligible (that's where the bad teeth come in).

Only if your dad likes to haul out the Super 8 on holidays have you seen a movie more abominably shot than "A Letter to Brezhnev" -- the lights and camera are simply thrown out there. Presumably, director Chris Bernard thinks this gives the movie a rough-hewn aura of authenticity. He's trying to pass off sloppiness as an esthetic.

And why lend an air of authenticity to a movie that's otherwise so fraudulent, that steals its emotions from bad old Hollywood movies? From the point where Elaine and Piotr exchange glances in the bar, and exchange glances, and exchange glances, while the image goes gauzy, you know this movie is not going to take you anywhere you want to go. Where it takes you, in fact, is into a muddy-headed story that would have you believe that things in the Soviet Union are no worse than in Britain -- what "A Letter to Brezhnev" needs is a letter from Sakharov.

"A Letter to Brezhnev" is being sold as a "new wave," apparently because there are some sprigs of new wave music on the sound track, and the characters are unhappy with England. In fact, it's about as old wave as waves ever get.

A Letter to Brezhnev, at the Outer Circle, is unrated but contains profanity, brief nudity and sexual situations.