Sunday, September 4, 2011

CineCritical Spotlight: Rachel Weisz

In the past two weeks I have watched two political thrillers featuring Rachel Weisz in featured roles. CineCritical readers know I have a fondness for the English actress, having first fallen under the spell of her charms in The Constant Gardener (2005), which won a very pregnant Weisz the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress. She followed that up with roles in the charming The Brothers Bloom (2009), the forgettable The Lovely Bones (2009) and the ambitious but clumsy Agora (2009). This year brings us two titles that will have premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival.

The Whistleblower is based on the true story of Kathryn Bolkovac and the illegal human trafficking in post-war Bosnia, while Page Eight is a British spy thriller starring Bill Nighy as an MI5 officer who gets caught up in damaging report that alleges government officials were aware that the American government was torturing prisoners in covert international prisons. One depends far too much on the audience's empathy, while the other is a slow-burning thriller that manages to hold firm while managing a far-reaching plot.

Weisz gives a credible performance in Larysa Kondracki's The Whistleblower but the film depends too much on the
comparison between Bolkovac's (Weisz) guilt over deserting her daughter and her horror upon discovering the number of teenage girls being trafficked. There is a certain amount of American machismo in the film that feels over the top. The film starts well, detailing the misguided reasons why two girls got involved in human trafficking, but towards the end the film is too bogged down in forced empathy that it loses track of its story. Bolkovac comes across as too whiny and hysterical, a fault I attribute to Kondracki's screenplay and direction. Vanessa Redgrave and David Strathairn are the bright spots in an otherwise overstimulated film.

There is a reason that I often lean away from films based on true events: they are built to tug on heartstrings and performances are made to be inspiring rather than realistic. Is this not how Sandra Bullock won her Oscar? The Whistleblower has the elements of a powerful political thriller based in a controversial recent past that has untapped cinematic potential. Hollywood has so far shied away from films dealing with human trafficking because it is a very sensitive subject. The Whistleblower could have shone a light on the disgusting horrors of human trafficking instead of sugar coating it into the inspiring story of one woman's decision to defy her government.

My rating: 2 stars out of 4.

Page Eight, on the other hand, is a smart and savvy political thriller that understands the world of espionage. The film was written and directed by English playwright David Hare and was broadcast on BBC television in the UK in August (it will be screened on PBS in November). It is an engaging thriller with a top-notch cast (a mini Harry Potter reunion) and its cleverly woven plot keeps you guessing until the very end.

The film stars Bill Nighy as Johnny Warricker, part of the old boys club at MI5. His closest friend is Benedict Baron (Michael Gambon), Director General of MI5. Benedict shares a report with Johnny and Jill Tankard (Judy Davis) where Johnny sees a footnote on page eight alleging that the Prime Minister (Ralph Fiennes) is aware that American officials are torturing prisons in various international prisons. Jill has no faith in the report and questions the credibility of the unnamed source. Johnny is forced to continue the investigation after Benedict dies of a heart attack. While this is all going on Johnny has a chance encounter with his neighbour, Nancy Pierpan (Weisz). Nancy is a journalist whose brother was killed in the Middle East. Johnny is immediately leery of her intentions and becomes even more suspicious when Ralph (Tom Hughes), a man he met in Nancy's apartment shows up at his daughter's (Felicity Jones) art opening. Johnny enlists Nancy's help to discover the truth behind page eight.

Page Eight moves very slowly and deliberately with subtle clues and impeccable acting. I am a very big fan of British spy thrillers and I appreciate the lack of gadgetry and special effects. The story is thoughtfully plotted and directed. It leaves me even more excited for the upcoming adaptation of John le Carré's Tinker, Tailor, Solider, Spy.

My rating: 3.5 stars out of 4.

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