Gdynia Film Festival 2014 Day 5: Jack Strong / The Photographer

Two exciting Main Competition thrillers probing Polish-Russian relations screen on the fifth day of the Festival.

The Main Competition selection at this year’s Gdynia Film Festival has been highly diverse, with films ranging from the low, low-budget (Aleksandra Gowin and Ireneusz Grzyb’s disarming Little Crushes); Krzysztof Skonieczny’s disturbing Hardkor Disko) to the super-lavish (Warsaw 44).

More towards the latter end of the scale are Wladyslaw Pasikowski’s Jack Strong and Waldemar Krzystek’s The Photographer, two highly enjoyable, polished mainstream thrillers which also probe Polish-Russian relations in intriguing ways.

Pasikowsi’s picture takes as its subject Ryszard Kuklinski, the Polish colonel who passed top secret Warsaw Pact documents to the CIA throughout the '70s.

At times reminiscent of recent (under-seen) espionage thrillers such as Billy Ray’s Breach (2007) and especially Christian Carion’s Farewell (2009), Jack Strong (the burly title refers to Kuklinski’s code name) is finally more overt in its action-film inclinations than either of those movies, and builds up a good deal of suspense in its terrific final third.

Kuklinski remains something of a divisive figure in Poland: the monument dedicated to him in Krakow has been vandalised on several occasions. But Pasikowski (who directed the controversial Aftermath [2012]) manages to make a movie that sympathetically explores the reasons for the protagonist’s actions, while also maintaining considerable narrative drive. He’s aided in no small part by an effective and involving performance from Marcin Dorocinski who keeps us attuned to Kuklinski’s complicated feelings as he puts his family and himself at risk for the greater good.

Jack Strong is a highly professional and proficient spy thriller, executed with flair and intelligence. The Photographer, though, has something extra: an undercurrent of obsessiveness, of discordance and unease, that really lingers on the viewer.

The Photographer (2014)

At some level, the film is the story of the making of a serial killer. But it’s one with a particularly interesting context, interweaving parallel strands that see a contemporary murder investigation in Russia supplemented by scenes set in the '70s at a Soviet troops garrison in Legnica, Poland. Linking the plots is the fate of a young boy who is unable to speak in his own voice, and who can only imitate the voices of those around him, a conceit that gives The Photographer much of its unsettling power.

Not all of the revelations fully convince, but the movie grips and involves until its surprising, rather daring end. The '70s Legnica-set scenes are particularly strong, sketching out Polish/Russian power-dynamics and a deeply unhappy family situation, both of which elements will end up having their repercussions in the present-day strand.

As the policewoman battling demons of her own, Tatiana Arntgolts is engaging in the lead, though perhaps the finest performances come from elsewhere: in particular, from the excellent Elena Babenko as a mother who’s unable to give her troubled son the love he requires, and who is certainly not about to go through the experience of having another child.

These works have strong audience appeal (the applause at Jack Strong lasted the entire duration of the film’s lengthy closing credits) both movies are confident, rewarding entertainments which, given distribution opportunity, could do well for themselves outside of Poland. Alas, Jack Strong had only a very limited UK release earlier this year with practically zero publicity to accompany it. Here's hoping for a different fate for The Photographer.

* * *

Above image: Jack Strong (2014)

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