During the earlier part of this century, the director Michael Winterbottom and the screenwriter Frank Cotrell-Boyce were among the movieverse’s most successful and prolific pairings, making six features between 1997′s Butterfly Kiss and 2005′s A Cock and Bull Story.
Both men have intriguing new films at the 32nd Dinard’s film festival.
Working with the directors Neil Boyle and Kirk Hendry, Cottrel-Boyce has adapted Michael Morpurgo’s adventure Kensuke’s Kingdom into a thrilling all-ages animation, replete with a clever sheepdog, marauding animal poachers, a long-shipwrecked Japanese veteran of the second World War and lovely performances from Ken Watanabe and Cillian Murphy.
Winterbottom has turned in his first feature film since 2019′s Greed. Shoshana concerns British Palestine between 1938 and the violent foundation of the Israeli state. It’s a complex political and historical moment, and Winterbottom and his cowriters, Laurence Coriat and Paul Viragh, can’t find a more elegant introduction than a truncated lecture delivered by Irina Starshenbaum over archive footage. Newsreels are used several times to bridge historical developments.
Inspired by real events and people, Shoshana opens in Tel Aviv as British authorities struggle to contain militant Zionist groups and surging tensions between Jews and Arabs. An English assistant superintendent named Thomas Wilkin (Douglas Booth) has embarked on a passionate affair with Shoshana (Starshenbaum), a member of the barely legal Haganah territorial army and the daughter of Ber Borochov, the Russian Marxist Zionist.
When resentments between the communities and factions heat up, Wilkin is joined by the no-nonsense Geoffrey Morton (Harry Melling), an operative who hopes to contain the radical Zionists in Tel Aviv the way he cracked down on Arabs “up north”. Mellor, with a shrug, says, “That’s one less of them,” as a Zionist bomber painfully breathes his last following a horrific early detonation.
That British arrogance is soon met with fierce resistance and car bombs. Thomas’s relationship with Shoshana is complicated by her membership of Haganah, a defence force. His pursuit of Avraham Stern (Aury Alby), the leader of the paramilitary organisation Irgun, is played out as a series of escalations on both sides: armed robberies and market explosions are counteracted by interrogational torture and executions. The upper lip of the British high commissioner’s assistant Robert Chambers (an excellent Ian Hart) remains quite stiff as he oversees the hanging of a young radical.
Confusingly, the eponymous heroine’s radicalisation is flagged, then marginalised in favour of police procedure. Her historical marriage to Wilkin is distilled into a handful of unnecessary sex scenes.
David Holmes’s score, which flips from angular propulsion to slinky jazz, is emblematic of a film that is trying to do too much.
At the film’s premiere, Winterbottom evoked Graham Greene and The Quiet American. Despite the lopsided narrative, Shoshana, like Greene’s novel, does a decent job of evoking a frenzied era as it offers a warning from history. A trinity of exceptional performances from Booth, Mellor and Starshenbaum work to convey a moral knot as exceptional circumstances and extremism become normalised.
That ugliness couldn’t look prettier, thanks to Sergio Tribastone’s production designs, Anthony Unwin’s costumes and the cinematography of Giles Nuttgens.