Empire (UK) - - ON.SCREEN -


DI­REC­TOR Pawel Paw­likowski CAST Joanna Kulig, To­masz Kot, Borys Szyc, Agata Kulesza

PLOT Poland, 1949. Mu­si­cian Wik­tor (Kot) en­lists moun­tain girl Zula (Kulig) into a state pro­pa­ganda troupe. They be­gin a tu­mul­tuous ro­mance that lasts for decades and spans both sides of the Iron Cur­tain.

POLAND IN THE late ’40s was a coun­try in ru­ins, still rav­aged by the ef­fects of hav­ing not one, but two of the most bru­tal armies in mod­ern his­tory fight­ing their way across it. It’s here that writer-di­rec­tor Pawel Paw­likowski sets Cold War, his first film since 2013 Os­car-win­ner Ida. Tak­ing loose in­spi­ra­tion from his par­ents’ lives, he’s cre­ated some­thing that’s mov­ing, rich with pe­riod de­tail and star­tlingly well-acted.

With the coun­try’s newly cre­ated Com­mu­nist gov­ern­ment at­tempt­ing to con­nect with its ru­rally based cit­i­zens, it sends a bunch of ur­ban in­tel­lec­tual types round the coun­try to record tra­di­tional folk mu­sic and re­cruit its per­form­ers to restage their tra­di­tional dances and songs. It’s all in the name of pro­pa­ganda — the mu­sic is used to de­ify Stalin in a se­ries of per­for­mance scenes that cap­ture the weird tyrannophile kitsch typ­i­cal of Com­mu­nism at the time.

One of those mu­si­cians is the in­tense, chain-smok­ing Wik­tor (Kot), who finds his eye caught by Zula (Kulig) — a peas­ant girl whose vim and vigour are pretty much the leftie ur­ban in­tel­lec­tual’s dream of au­then­tic ru­ral folk. How­ever, in­stead of Phan­tom Thread-style power games, Zula is more than Wik­tor’s match from day one.

And late ’40s Poland was a very dif­fer­ent place from ’50s Eng­land, so our cou­ple here have more on their plates than awk­ward break­fasts. In their own ways, they both rub against their gov­ern­ment’s sti­fling au­thor­i­tar­i­an­ism, well rep­re­sented by Borys Szyc’s anti-semitic ap­pa­ratchik. Es­cape to the West seems to of­fer free­dom, but as Wik­tor mis­er­ably plays piano in a Paris jazz bar, he finds his prob­lems may not have been left be­hind in Poland.

While on the sub­ject of jazz, it’s per­ti­nent to note some of Cold War’s big­gest strengths are in the notes Paw­likowski doesn’t play. What could on pa­per sound like a melo­drama is cap­tured with min­i­mal di­a­logue. Grand themes of the re­la­tion­ship be­tween cul­ture and the state, in­di­vid­ual free­dom and com­pro­mise, and how far love can be ex­pected to over­come the world it swims through: they’re all han­dled ele­gantly and with­out fuss, and in a mere 88 min­utes.

The de­liv­ery is top-notch too, Kulig in par­tic­u­lar giv­ing a break­out per­for­mance that would have the French New Wave chok­ing on their Gi­tanes. Vis­ually, you’re un­likely to see a more beau­ti­ful film this year, Paw­likowski quot­ing the Pol­ish cinema of the pe­riod with com­po­si­tion af­ter com­po­si­tion so ge­o­met­ri­cally pre­cise they al­most count as graphic de­sign over photography. In­di­vid­ual mo­ments of grace abound: there’s one shot of Kulig drift­ing down a river that be­longs in a gallery. The union of po­lit­i­cal and emo­tional de­spair has never looked so good. ANDREW LOWRY

VER­DICT Paw­likowski is in com­plete con­trol of the form, but this is no aus­tere piece of work — he even finds time for a few good jokes. Ac­ces­si­ble, hu­mane and com­pas­sion­ate: what a treat this is.

A love that knows no bounds.

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