Friday, February 18, 2011

A Review of The Whistleblower (Kondracki, 2011)

The Whistleblower
Directed by Larysa Kondracki
Starring: Rachel Weisz, David Strathairn, Vanessa Redgrave, Roxana Condurache, Nikolaj Lie Kaas, Monica Bellucci
Grade: C –

Larysa Kondracki’s issue-driven “The Whistleblower” emerges at an opportune time to raise public awareness, since the issue of sex trafficking has been particularly prevalent in the news lately. Kondracki’s directorial debut received its premiere in Toronto this past September, and will likely make its way into Western cinemas in the second half of 2011. It features Rachel Weisz in a role that resembles in nature her Oscar-winning performance as a humanitarian activist in 2005’s The Constant Gardener and establishes an eminently happier ending for her character here.

“The Whistleblower” is the real-life account of Kathryn Bolkovac (Weisz), who encountered and exposed a large-scale cover-up of sex trafficking in post-war Bosnia. Assigned to a peacekeeping role in 1999, Kathryn excels, successfully securing a domestic violence conviction, and attracting the attention of women’s rights advocate Madeleine Rees (Redgrave). Madeleine offers her a job heading a branch of the United Nations, which she accepts despite her keenness to move back closer to her ex-husband and teenage daughter.

When Kathryn’s position leads her to a raid on a local bar, she discovers two beaten girls, who later confide in her that they have been trafficked into the country under false pretences. Acting swiftly to assess the severity of the situation Kathryn finds herself under pressure from senior figures, and her attempts to address this issue and enact justice are continually thwarted by internal conspiracies and community kingpins. The dawning conclusion is that this is a far bigger web of corruption than anticipated, which reaches beyond the confines of her department and involves many of her colleagues in the UN.

Aesthetically severe, “The Whistleblower” has elements which hark back to Lukas Moodysson’s alarming Lilya-4-Ever, concerning the ease at which young girls can be lured into the sex trade. The women are splayed across grubby scenery, presented in lewd images of torture, and engaged in particularly harrowing depictions of sexual abuse. Impassioned first-time director Kondracki has amped up the degradation well, but is far more competent at instigating shock through de-humanising imagery than developing insight into the underlying factors that have propelled the women into such a compromising position. Kondracki litters the film with confined close-ups of victimised souls (whether that be Weisz or one of her women) in dingy apartments, exercising a brand of sinkhole cinema that gives us little idea of the surrounding community or the network of criminality which governs it. External shots and neutral surrounding scenes would certainly aid this problem in providing scope, but the real problems lie in the muddled, wafer-thin script.

“The Whistleblower” has been written in the vein of a political disquisition; coursing through an unambitiously lineated narrative path to justice with few interesting dramatic shifts or relationships to speak of. It’s assumingly political, thematically brave, but seminally lacking in cinematic worth to justify existence beyond the duty of the documentarian. The attempts to branch off from the main strand are so terribly underdeveloped, featuring a back-story for one of the trafficked girls which tells us virtually nothing about their way of life other than “domestic violence is commonplace.” The film is constantly re-iterating this same theme without truly making these families accessible, reproaching their frayed relationships with pale single-mindedness. The villains of the piece aren’t sketched with any more shade either, recalling the two-dimensional depictions of corporate and ego-centric opposition to justice that we saw in last year’s Green Zone — albeit without a performance quite as bad as Greg Kinnear’s. Even Kathryn’s allies, the chief of which comes in the form of political-humanist project stalwart Vanessa Redgrave — who waltzes into scenes in an array of dinky hats to dole out solemn advice — hardly convince us that they know what they’re talking about.

If nothing else, “The Whistleblower” at least places us firmly on the side of justice, and expresses the procedural difficulties encountered when facing corruption through emotive force rather than boardroom chatter. A scene where Kathryn is trying to persuade one of the girls to go into protective custody with her, while one of her corrupt colleagues is intimidating the girl in the same room, is a particular highlight in terms of rousing our emotion. Kathryn’s palpable frustration at being continually undermined in her profession is laid bare, and her fury at the dissolving degree of control she has over these women is one of the film’s more emotionally honest moments. Weisz too is good in this scene, and fine overall, despite being shoehorned into the Charlize Theron/North Country role of battling sexual discrimination and political injustice while simultaneously trying to rescue a relationship with her family.

Kathryn’s familial difficulties are outlined in three moments: where she clutches a letter of rejection to her state police transfer request; where she cries during a telephone conversation with her daughter, and when she’s asked by a diplomat why the courts gave custody of her child to the father because that’s “so unusual.” The final instance of this trio of unthinkably lame methods of lumping a murky history onto our professionally-compromised heroine asserts that Kondracki really doesn’t have a handle on who Bolkovac was at this time, apart from a troubled divorcee (for reasons unbeknownst to us) and a valiant crusader. At one point Kathryn even cites her daughter as a reason for defending these young girls, as if the mere issue itself weren’t enough to capture all of her moralistic fibre.

As a political thriller of sorts, “The Whistleblower” is a tired venture, content to place its subject on a pedestal (like a documentary would) without endeavouring to make the story cinematic, or allude to the motivations of the characters involved on both sides. It feels strangely throttled as a conversation piece, with half-hearted attempts at generating interest beyond an historical timeline — all of which are rendered irrelevant anyway. There’s surely passion behind this project, but it’s made with such colourless labour that it’s difficult to care about what’s presented on screen, and almost impossible to recognise who Bolkovac was in the first place. Stick to the news.


Bob said...

Disagree completely with your review, i loved the film and Rachel Weisz was extraordinary.

Best film of the year so far.

Anonymous said...

Where did you see this? Is it in Europe yet? I've heard different reviews, really want to see. Any update would be appreciated!

Cal said...

@Anonymous: I saw this via a screener for the up and coming Human Rights Film Festival, which reaches London in late March. I'm not sure where you're located but there are also showings in the New York stretch of the festival in the Summer.

Anonymous said...

Excuse me but if did not understand Kathryn's reason for helping those girls (which was in part for her daughter) then you really did not have a understanding on what this film was about. I saw this in "The Toronto Film Festival" last year and I thought the movie was extroudinary. Rachel Weisz's performace was especialy great and worthy of award consiteration.

Cal said...

@Anonymous: There doesn't need to be a reason, but everything concerning the daughter was so ambiguous that I don't know why they bothered with it at all.

Anonymous said...

The daughter gave her the reason to continue fighting for those girls. The ending of the film pretty much sums that up.

Did we even see the same film?

Alex in Movieland said...


I want Holiday (1930). Where did you get it from??? :D

did u ever consider to start posting films on youtube? :P

Cal said...

I got it from a website called which stock out-of-print titles (I also got A Ship Comes In, Emma, and White Banners from there.) Some of the films aren't great quality, but I don't know whether that's down to the era, or iffy transfers.

If you want the full catalog for the site, let me know. I suppose I could have a go at uploading those that you want, although I have no clue how to do it.

E-mail me if you like.

Anonymous said...

Hey Cal, it's Tyler (if you remember me). Stumbled upon your blog while looking up thoughts on this film.

You essentially nailed my opinion of this thing with a more positive spin. It will undoubtedly go down as one of the most exploitative and painfully inept tries of the year with Miral being its only current successor for the title. Weisz was solid, as were Stratharin and some of the other supporting cast, but this was just bad. All shock, no substance.

Cal said...

Hey Tyler!

Yes, of course I remember.

Thanks for commenting, and especially for agreeing with me somewhat. You're the first person to do so thus far!

I also disliked "Miral" a lot, and in terms of structure, it's a much bigger mess than this film. Probably more interesting, though.

John Dingler said...

Of course people not yet weaned off of eve. news pablum and the entertainment of Fox news would have negative feelings toward this dramatic story, denouncing it as quasi-documentary or exploitative.

I enjoyed Cowboys & Aliens and will likely enjoy The Whistleblower one too.

Can't wait to see it.