- Prolific English director Michael Winterbottom delivers a period thriller set in British Mandatory Palestine
BAFTA-winning director Michael Winterbottom follows up his 2022 documentary Eleven Days in May [+see also:
film profile] about the bombing of Gaza with a period piece. Premiering as a Special Presentation at this year’s Toronto International Film Festival, Soshana [+see also:
film profile] is a political thriller set in 1938 Tel Aviv. For those not well-acquainted with the history of Palestine and Israel, the film provides abundant contextualisation in the form of newsreels and voiceover recaps from its very opening. The voice belongs to Shoshana Borochov (Irina Starshenbaum, familiar from Kiril Serebrennikov’s Leto [+see also:
interview: Ilya Stewart
film profile]), daughter of one of the founders of Zionism, Dov Ber Borochov. However, her origins remain an undercurrent rather than a defining feature, as the film aims to be a character study rather than a straightforward historical drama. This intention is clearly discernible — both in the film’s title and the time we spend with Shoshana on screen — yet the protagonist ultimately ends up being but one of many pawns in the political chess game that defined history from the 1940s onwards.
Nobody is safe in British Mandatory Palestine. Tensions rise by the hour and bombings are a daily occurrence, provoking more drastic acts on behalf of the Brits, who are personified by police officer Geoffrey Morton (Harry Melling). As the newly appointed chief in Tel Aviv, his mission is to track the poet Avraham Stern (Aury Alby) who is the leader of the paramilitary organisation Irgun, whatever it takes. Spying, betrayal, and torture are part and parcel of Shoshana’s plot, however much Morton’s supervisee Thomas Wilkin (an intense Douglas Booth) decries them. Strangely enough, Wilkin — and not his secret love Shoshana — is the only character uncompromised by the film’s twists and turns.
There’s no denying the prolific English director’s storytelling skills: Shoshana is not only contextually rich and confident in its politics, but also well-acquainted with genre tropes. The fact that it doesn’t lean too heavily on thriller beats — even if that would have made a more entertaining watch — is perhaps related to its dedication to history. A film about the tensions between the Palestinian and Jewish populations as fueled by the British authorities, Shoshana is under a lot of pressure to tell the story right. Starshenbaum’s performance gives levity to a character who can easily turn into dead weight once its narrative purpose is fulfilled, and the Russian actress’s magnetic presence enlivens even the toughest procedural scenes.
The most surprising part of Shoshana is a kernel of a love story between the protagonist and Brit-turned-Tel-Aviv-local Wilkin. Winterbottom, alongside his co-writers Laurence Coriat and Paul Viragh, plants the seed of a star-crossed lovers subplot in the middle of political machinations and betrayal, a move which adds spice to the rather more dull historical parts of the film. As with the thriller tropes, however, the melodramatic undertones are also left unexplored, perhaps not to interfere with the “seriousness” of the film’s story — a sound decision, but one that deprives the film of zest. As a historical document and a period film, Shoshana fits the bill perfectly with its controlled pace and reigned-in emotions. But it does leave its namesake stranded halfway through, a decision that’s both warranted to make room for the bigger picture, yet frustrating, making the audience yearn for more. Sidelining a complex main character like Shoshana only strengthens the desire to experience more of that decisive historical moment through her eyes, for longer, even if one knows how that particular conflict unfolds today.
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