TIFF 2023 Review: Michael Winterbottom’s “Shoshana” Finds a Conflict of Interest to Deliver Suspense

Watching “Shoshana,” an appreciation grew for Michael Winterbottom as a man out of time, a director who seemed like cinema’s future upon first breaking onto the scene in 1990s with such provocations as an unsparing adaptation of Thomas Hardy’s “Jude” and films such as “Welcome to Sarajevo” and “Wonderland” that seized upon the immediacy of digital video at the turn of the century, and while that still holds true, his later career turn as a craftsman of William Wyler-esque versatility, remaining attuned to contemporary global issues in the packaging of old fashioned genre exercises, has been fascinating to watch and seemingly the best of all worlds when bringing new experiences to the screen with all the experience he already has.

One might worry that he’s attempting to take on too much in the opening moments of “Shoshana,” attempting to pack the tortured history of Palestine into narration over its title sequence. However, Winterbottom shows his wisdom in employing the dulcet voice of its title character (Irina Starshenbaum) to impart a legacy of occupation from the Ottoman Empire to the 1930s where the British hold control over the country, but with an influx of Jewish immigrants arriving in the run-up to World War II and tensions developing between the preexisting Arab population, it all seems up for grabs. Rival factions develop amongst the Jews about how best to co-exist, with the more defense-minded Haganah quietly beginning to arm themselves after long hoping to find a nonviolent resolution as their more militant counterparts the Irgun begin finding more support for once fringe beliefs and the fight has played out within Shoshana’s own family as the respected daughter of a late Zionist leader who has embraced the Haganah while her brother drifts more towards the Irgun.

However, the film takes greater interest in another tie that Shoshana has — to Thomas Wilkin (Douglas Booth), a British officer who’s taken quite a liking to Tel Aviv and to her since being dispatched to police the area. While they take baby steps in making their relationship public, Wilkin has another partner foisted upon him professionally in Geoffrey Morton (Henry Melling), recently arrived from the contentious territory of Jenin and less invested in keeping the peace than asserting authority, a task he believes will be made easier by loosening up on the Irgun and its persuasive leader Avraham Stern (Aura Alby) and more tightly monitoring the Haganah. It’s largely left to history to know what a disastrous decision this was for the future of Palestine, but “Shoshana” can be enjoyed first as a crackling thriller when Morton’s vilification of the Haganah puts Wilkin’s relationship with Shoshana in jeopardy as extremism starts to take root on both sides and then understood more broadly as an unfortunately timeless tale of how foreign intervention can often lead to chaos for its native residents.

Although the feeling of inevitability around the tragedy unfolding is hard to stomach, it is quite easy to be absorbed in as if “Shoshana” were a drama actually made in the era it takes place in with top-notch production design from Sergio Tribastone, dynamic camerawork from Giles Nuttgens and in the film’s one anachronistic touch, a pleasing mix of composer David Holmes’ propulsive techno predilections with more classical standards. It certainly isn’t the only way in which “Shoshana” feels like it’s modern when Winterbottom and co-writers Laurence Coriat and Paul Viragh present a situation where looking back with a clear-eyed perspective on a struggle to decide upon the right way forward comes across as a startlingly prescient contemplation of where we are now.

“Shoshana” does not yet have U.S. distribution. It will next screen at the BFI London Film Festival on October 7th at the BFI Southbank, NFT 1 at 8:30 pm and October 10th at the ICA, Screen 1 at 3:15 pm.

Zeen is a next generation WordPress theme. It’s powerful, beautifully designed and comes with everything you need to engage your visitors and increase conversions.