Berlinale 2023 Review: Sacha Polak’s “Silver Haze” Captivatingly Plays with Fire

“You never wear makeup,” Leah (Charlotte Knight) says to her sister Franky (Vicky Knight) as she’s touching up her face in “Silver Haze,” immediately met with the sarcastic rejoinder, “I’m a changed woman.” Still, there does seem to be a shift, even in the limited time you’ve gotten to know Franky after she meets Florence (Esme Creed-Miles) from her work as a nurse at a nearby hospital, thinking she’s going to be the one to change her after she’s admitted following a suicide attempt. Franky’s become the motherly type, though you suspect it’s come reluctantly after being forced into the position of being her family’s primary breadwinner once her father left the family 15 years earlier following a fire at a local pub that Franky still bears burn marks from but it becomes evident has been the source of greater ongoing pain elsewhere, caring for her mother who suffers from night terrors and prone to looking for her father’s whereabouts online to potentially show him all the damage he’s wrought.

The drama is writer/director Sacha Polak’s second collaboration with Knight, who really did endure a brush with fire and could give “Dirty God,” the first film together, the special energy of allowing one to see the first-time actress build her confidence in herself simultaneous to the character she played as the survivor of an acid attack looking to reclaim her life. That kind of alchemy between reality and fiction can only happen once of course, but Polak nonetheless is able to find inspiration in Knight to tell a story as unique as she is in “Silver Haze” when Franky is caught between the mature grownup she’s had to become for the sake of all those still in her life and the child she remains because of the anger she holds onto due to the father who abandoned her.

Whereas one might assume that Franky and Florence might find salvation in one another after striking up a connection, that isn’t where “Silver Haze” wants to take things, instead observing how beyond an intense physical attraction, the two initially can bond over a shared feeling of it’s them against the world yet start to unravel when it comes to doing the actual work of a serious relationship. Florence may have similarly stressful situation at home as Franky, left with a caretaker named Alice (Angela Bruce) and a brother Jack with special needs after her mother died, but she’s the one more apt to run away from them, disappearing for days at a time, and Franky finds herself becoming more a part of the family as the distance grows between herself and Florence. Polak really does make it feel as if you’re seeing Franky getting her first taste of freedom even being well into her twenties with a raft of experience and yet the lack of anyone to turn to with a compassionate ear makes any choices she makes downright terrifying.

Ironically, Polak and Knight would seem to give each other license to step right up to the edge, with the actress looking truly vulnerable at times when something manages to puncture Franky’s fierce facade and the director emboldened by Knight wearing her scars proudly to interrogate the deeper and less obvious trauma of walking around prejudged. Some bold choices don’t entirely pay off – an opening involving a gas mask-wearing boyfriend of Franky’s as the two have sex comes across as a bit of an empty provocation, though it works well enough as a throwaway gag. However, it sets the tone for the high-wire act to follow that “Silver Haze” rarely wavers on and while all the characters look for an escape from their lives, it can be invigorating to step into their shoes for the time that Polak generously allows.

“Silver Haze” will screen at Berlinale on February 20th at 10 pm at Cubix 7, February 21st at 4 pm at Cubix 5, February 22nd at 6 pm at fsk Kino and fsk Kino 2, February 23rd at Haus der Berliner Festspiele at 12:15 pm and February 25th at 10 pm at Zoo Palast 2.

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