The following is a reprint of our review from IFFBoston.
Hollywood hasn’t gotten tired of taking great leading actresses and sticking them in films meant to showcase their strengths, usually in an exaggerated plea for an Oscar. Larysa Kondracki’s “The Whistleblower” is just this for Rachel Weisz, only the major flaws in the film’s structure detract from the admittedly great performance Weisz turns out.
In this story based on true events, Weisz stars as Kathryn Bolkovac, an American police officer who travels to Bosnia for a 6-month stint as a UN peacekeeper in the ‘90s. Kathryn doesn’t really care about keeping the peace; she needs the large paycheck in order to move closer to her daughter whom she lost in a custody battle. Upon arrival, she finds that the place is a bigger mess than she imagined.
When she stumbles across a bar of sex-trafficked girls that many police officers and UN officials frequent, Kathryn realizes she can’t turn her head the other way like everybody else. As she takes her findings to people higher and higher up, she begins to see that a huge web of deceit has been woven, not to mention that none of these men can be punished because of diplomatic immunity. If the story rings a bell, that’s because it’s much like the Steven Soderbergh-directed “Erin Brockovich,” the film that won the less-than-mediocre Julia Roberts her Oscar. And though Weisz is ten times the actress Roberts is, she can’t save this picture from falling flat. “Whistleblower” is Kondracki’s first feature film, as well as her first produced feature-length script, and her inexperience shows, especially in the writing.
There are scenes where Kathryn arrives, talks to cops about a riot, then has to head back to headquarters. Why was she even in the scene at all if no important information was conveyed? The entire first act drags because we see Kathryn in her normal life, then just hanging out in Bosnia, and the meat of the film doesn’t get going until almost halfway in. We need to know why she’s in Bosnia, but it might have been more effective to place us in the middle of the action, flashing back to her struggles at home. The dialogue often feels clunky even with Weisz’s expert readings, and instead of meaningful interaction, we get many shots in which Weisz yells expletives at the horror going on around her.
Once the film gets going, however, the conflict and the disgusting nature of what’s being done to these young girls is both repulsive and engaging, like not being able to look away from a sick sports injury. Though it’s difficult to say whether or not we’re interested because Kondracki has finally picked up the pace or because the material is so inflammatory, we know that she has a great story on her hands. Not only are these girls stolen from their homes and forced to work as sex slaves, but the men (and some women) sent to protect them participate and encourage their suffering with their money.
In this way, the film really does raise some interesting feminist questions, about both men and women. And though the men are entirely one-dimensional — all scum of the most bottom rung in life — the women are wholly interesting. Kathryn becomes interested in one girl in particular, Raya, and she promises to keep her safe but can’t hold up her end of the bargain. Raya’s mother continues to search for her daughter, fighting everyone in her way, while Raya’s aunt is too scared to go against her husband when he sells her to the highest bidder in the beginning of the film. Kondracki is not so much asking how men could do these things to girls, but how women could stand by and let other women be tortured and abused. What has to happen to break that cycle of fear?
It’s too bad that Kondracki never delves deeper into these questions. One of the problems is that she has two phenomenal supporting actresses — Monica Bellucci as Laura, the head of a displacement agency, and Vanessa Redgrave as Madeline, Kathryn’s supervisor in gender affairs — and the director has no idea how to use them. Bellucci appears in the middle of the movie for about twenty minutes as a paragon of red tape insanity, then disappears forever. Redgrave gives Kathryn her job, but then we’re never quite sure why her character can’t help Kathryn get the message out. And don’t even mention the boyfriend character she picks up in Bosnia, who we see maybe three times, only learning that he’s married with two children (translate: winner).
Because of Weisz’s performance, “Whistleblower” is a film that will find an audience, especially for women who don’t want to watch the next installment of “Sex and the City.” She might even get some awards recognition, although 2011 is looking to be another good year for lead actresses. The thought behind the material is good, but one can only wish that Weisz had chosen a project equally as good as her talents. Lucky for her she’ll have more than ample opportunity to nab her second golden man. Now Kondracki, we’re not so sure about. [C-]