Posts Tagged ‘Cold War’

The unwary might find it a bit of a coin-toss as to what kind of crowd they could reasonably expect when turning up to a foreign language preview screening at the Phoenix – sometimes you can have the place to yourself, at others it can be busting at the seams. But perhaps it’s not quite that random: it’s not really surprising that a Franco-Belgian film should struggle to attract a crowd on the night that France and Belgium are playing each other in the World Cup semi-final (the auditorium was at about 3% of capacity for Racer and the Jailbird) while the size of the potential Polish audience in the UK is so well-known that even the big multiplexes are routinely showing commercial films from that part of the world. So maybe it’s not such a surprise that the advance screening of Pawel Pawlikowski’s new film, Cold War, should have been quite so popular. Honestly, I was lucky to get a seat – I hadn’t seen so many Poles in one place since the last time I watched the giant slalom on TV.

Pawlikowski is a film-maker whose parents moved with him to the UK when he was still a teenager. He rose to prominence in the early years of this century with English-language films like Last Resort and My Summer of Love, but his recent work has concerned itself with a more specifically Polish sensibility.

Filmed in pristine black and white, the film opens in the war-ravaged Poland of 1949, where a young people’s choir is being established to preserve and celebrate the traditional music of the peasantry. In charge of proceedings is distinguished musician Wiktor (Tomazs Kot), and one of the singers he selects for the project is Zula (Joanna Kulig), a girl whose slightly suspect personal background is more than made up for by her remarkable vocal talent.

The choir is initially successful, but things inevitably become more complicated: Wiktor and Zula begin a relationship, which one would have to describe as illicit on a number of levels, while the ethnographic idealism of the project gradually becomes tainted by the demands of its government sponsors – as well as performing the old folk tunes of the Polish mountains, they find themselves obliged to include a few numbers about the inevitable triumph of World Communism and zippy tunes about how wonderful Stalin is.

Becoming thoroughly disillusioned with it all, Wiktor sees a trip to Berlin as a great opportunity to make a bit of a change in both their lives and suggests to Zula that they escape to the west (this is still pre-Berlin Wall). But Zula is unsure about this, and the decisions that they both make will end up shaping the rest of their lives…

If you’re anything like me, the first thing you think when you hear about a film called Cold War is that it will be some kind of thriller with a mid-20th century setting. And it is true that the political situation across Europe inevitably casts a long shadow over the events of the story here. However, what Pawlikowski has created here mainly combines elements of drama and romance, in a film which is almost to some extent a diegetic musical.

I get told off for using big words on this blog sometimes, so permit me to explain what I’m on about: this isn’t one of those ‘invisible orchestra’ musicals where someone wandering down the street suddenly bursts into song with the accompaniment of a full string section. All of the songs in this film, and there are quite a few, arise naturally from the doings of the choirs, singers, and musicians it concerns. The music is strikingly beautiful and one of the things you remember most strongly from the film (I should point out that it’s all in either Polish or French, like the rest of the movie); the brief dance segments are also impressively choreographed and filmed.

Doing most of the heavy lifting in the vocal department is Joanna Kulig, for whom this film is an exceptional showcase. Not only does she get to show just what a fine pair of lungs she possesses, but the character arc of the film is also demanding and she executes it extremely well. I should also point out the almost uncanny way in which Kulig, an actor in her mid thirties, convincingly portrays someone who begins the film in (one presumes) her late teens and then proceeds to age a decade and a half in the course of the story. Kot has less singing to do, but also delivers an assured and convincing performance; the pair make for an authentic, affecting couple.

As you might expect, though, this is no chocolate box romance: Wiktor and Zula are apart for years at a time, and even when they are together things are turbulent, troubled, torrid, and possibly other adjectives also beginning with T. The narrative covers decades and takes place in many countries; this is possibly why some commentators are describing Cold War as an epic masterpiece of cinema. Well, maybe: it’s certainly a very fine film, but on the other hand it seems very odd to be describing a film as an epic when it is well shy of ninety minutes in length. It is an exceptional miniature more than anything else – in fact, I would say that it almost feels like a proof-of-concept for a much longer, more expansive and reflective film, where the characters are given more time to grow and there is more space to enjoy the settings and emotions that Pawlikoski is obliged to sketch in only quite briefly here.

This is particularly apparent as the film approaches its conclusion. It’s very difficult not to interpret this as the director’s admission that, when it really comes down to it, you can never completely sever your connection with your homeland: characters return to Poland and the Polish language in both a literal and metaphorical sense. But in strictly narrative terms, I found the conclusion of this film to be a little wanting – events and decisions taking place too abruptly to completely satisfy. The final line of the film, about the view from the other side being much more beautiful – no real spoiler out of context – is loaded with multiple meanings, and will stay with me. But I still wanted more. This is a very good film in every respect, but one which feels unnaturally curtailed in almost every respect. A more expansive and lavish treatment of this story, done with the same style and skill, could have produced something truly exceptional.

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Hey, I’m big enough to admit when I get something wrong – my idea that this current run of Doctor Who was systematically revisiting the triumphs of the 2005 season was clearly totally erroneous. No, in the wake of this week’s episode (close-to-the-present-day confined-space setting, and old enemy  which a) reveals a new side to itself b) appears chained up at one point and c) believes itself to be the last of its kind) one can only conclude that the series is actually selectively revisiting the triumphs of the 2005 season: Cold War and Ice Warrior aren’t that far apart as titles go, and it would’ve made the parallels between this episode and Dalek even more explicit.

Having said that, I’ve no real desire to overstress the point, as Dalek remains one of the best episodes of 21st century Who and Cold War… isn’t. It’s not awful, and it’s a lot better than The Rings of Akhaten (but then it would take shocking mismanagement and a truly heroic effort to produce anything substantively worse), but it just felt, at best, terribly safe – almost like snap-together modern Doctor Who, well-machined bits assembled into a sturdy whole, but without much in the way of imagination or wit. Think of some of the other stories using this kind of structure outside Doctor Who – the monster-in-the-ice story surely started with Lovecraft’s At the Mountains of Madness, as I’ve argued elsewhere – compared to most of them, this was just a bit plodding.

Perhaps this is being a bit too kind to the script, which really felt scrunched up to fit the 40-minute time slot, and as a result came fully stocked with some excruciating plot contrivances – the junior crewman deciding, apparently of his own initiative, to take a welding torch to the block of ice, the crew not seemingly feeling much surprise at people appearing out of thin air on their sub, the whole business with the TARDIS vanishing (invoking the Great God of Continuity References doesn’t cover this, especially when the reference in question is to – for crying out loud – The Krotons), and so on. And how exactly did the Ice Warrior end up frozen at the pole? I admit I’ve only watched this episode twice so far, so I may have missed it, but I think that sort of fairly essential background information should be a bit more prominent.

Another victim of the running time was Liam Cunningham’s character. Modern Doctor Who being what it is, it’s rare to get more than two even partially-developed characters, and one of those is usually the villain. Cunningham certainly seemed to lose out to David Warner in the development stakes – I suppose the professor’s presence was essential to the plot, but he didn’t add much to it. A shame, as Cunningham’s a solid performer (he was even okay in Outcasts).

'Mention the Host Force again, Doctor, and I'll nut you.'

‘Mention the Host Force again, Doctor, and I’ll nut you.’

And the script really lacked the bravery and innovation of Dalek, which took the Doctor and the old enemy to completely new and shocking places. Consider: deciding that the entire human race deserved to die, as Skaldak did here, is clearly not the action of a remotely fair-minded or rational individual. Putting the Martian down would obviously be justified in the circumstances – and yet we had the Doctor refusing to directly threaten it, opting to potentially kill himself and everyone else on the sub instead. Consider the version of this episode where the Russians, wanting Martian technology, and Clara, not understanding the situation and filled with compassion for the creature, both want the Ice Warrior alive, but the Doctor – understanding just how lethal the Martian can be – insists that it must be killed. Wouldn’t that have been a more interesting  and potentially dramatic story, and done more to re-establish the Ice Warriors as a significant menace? One should review the story-as-made, not the version in your head, of course, but still…

The Ice Warriors came out of their revamp better than the Silurians did theirs, at least – and I suppose you have to admire the efforts Mark Gatiss went to in order to square the circle in terms of reconciling the two takes on the monsters we’ve seen in the past – the classic monster version, from – let’s be honest – the vast majority of their screen appearances, and the ‘noble alien race’ interpretation from The Curse of Peladon and many, many apocryphal stories. Bravo to the designers, who clearly realised that the classic armour design was clearly not broken and resisted the urge to ‘fix’ it too much.

(Although I have to say I fear for the future of Grand Marshal Skaldak – was that really a Martian ship rescuing him at the end of the episode? Given that the Ice Warriors attacked Earth at some point in the 21st century, I suppose it shouldn’t come as a surprise if there are Martians operating in the Solar System in the 1980s (the events of this story may explain how UNIT know what a Martian looks like in The Christmas Invasion), but they seemed to be absent from Mars itself when the UK sent numerous missions there only a few years earlier (The Ambassadors of Death). They seem to have gone by the time of The Waters of Mars, too, and the Doctor certainly talks about their civilisation as if it’s long-defunct at that point.

And then there’s the level of technology displayed – Skaldak’s rescuers had some kind of transmat system, which the Ice Warriors have never been depicted on TV as having. It appeared to have an extremely short range, so there isn’t necessarily an inconsistency with their need to hijack the human transmat systems in The Seeds of Death during the following century – but even so, this put their technology well in advance of Earth’s at this point, which doesn’t appear to be the case in the Galactic Federation stories – though those are admittedly set at least a few centuries, and probably much further, in the future. Either way, I suppose, Skaldak’s a big boy and seems capable of looking after himself.)

This story got quite a bit of advance publicity, mainly on the strength of the iconic returning monster, but in the end I’m not sure that was entirely warranted: there were a lot of little niggles and issues with this episode, but no terminal problems – however, there was nothing really memorable or outstanding going on either. This was really Doctor Who by the numbers, and that’s never going to produce anything more than, at best, basic competency.

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