It sometimes seems as if prolific British director Michael Winterbottom has had a go at just about every major type of film apart from light opera, shark attack stories and steampunk animé. That said, one of his most consistent, go-to genres — apart from comedy-dramas starring Steve Coogan — has been dramatized true stories, especially ones about characters trying to navigate or escape conflict zones. You can trace this theme back to his third feature Welcome to Sarajevo (1997), through In This World (2002) and up to the recent Eleven Days in May (co-directed by Mohammed Sawwaf), which documented the bombing of Palestinians in Gaza in 2021 and the children who were killed in the attack.
Following that last work — although the project has been in development for 15 years — Winterbottom’s latest, Shoshana, concerns the lead-up to the founding of Israel as a state. Like most of the key protagonists here, the title character Shoshana Borochov (Irina Starshenbaum, appealingly feral) was a real historical figure. The daughter of a Russian Socialist Zionist father back when such leftist groups wielded substantial influence in proto-Israel, Shoshana is a free spirit ahead of her time, sexually active, a crack shot with a rifle, a journalist for the Hebrew-language paper, and the “flower” of her Tel Aviv social set, much courted by men besotted with her beauty and intelligence.
The Bottom Line
A solid entry from an ever-prolific filmmaker.
The film gives her the job, assisted by reams of subtitled text and snippets from vintage newsreels, of laying out via voiceover the historical political context in the 1930s. At the time, Palestine was still under the colonial rule of the British, who were dithering between allowing the territory to secede as two states, or one Jewish state, or just carry on and keep ruling.
As more and more Jews start settling in the region, many fleeing the rise of Nazism in Europe, tensions mount between the Arabs and the Zionist settlers. The script by Winterbottom, Laurence Coriat and Paul Viragh is at its best in some ways when illustrating the perspectives of the disparate factions struggling for control at the time — from Haganah, the paramilitary Zionist force to which Shoshana belongs, to the Irgun, a hardcore Zionist organization dedicated to intimidating Arabs out of the territory through bombing and assassinations.
Caught in the middle of this muddle are the British police and military, represented here by governmental representative Robert Chambers (Ian Hart), anti-terrorism officer Geoffry Morton (Harry Melling, reliably excellent) and police officer Tom Wilkin (Douglas Booth), fresh off the boat from the British Home Counties, who soon becomes lovers with Shoshana.
Morton and Wilkin are teamed up to find and capture the leader of the Irgun, Avraham Stern (Aury Alby), with an eye toward cutting off the head of this increasingly violent and fast-growing terrorist group. But in the then-newly built city of Tel Aviv, where most of the action takes place (Italy’s Apulia region was used as a convincing location given the real Tel Aviv is far too built-up these days), everybody knows everybody and there are only a few degrees of separation between Shoshana and Stern.
In between bouts of passionate rumpy-pumpy, Shoshana and Tom struggle with their allegiances and loyalties, making this the ultimate date movie for middle-aged lefties with a taste for political discourse and vintage lingerie. (The costumes by Giada Tricomi are swooningly elegant, especially the bias-cut dresses and the crisp military uniforms.)
It also helps that the story feels as relevant today as ever given the perpetual problem of divisiveness in current cultures far beyond the Middle East, from Brexit-ravaged Britain to the red state-blue state antagonism in the U.S. and beyond. As even a cursory skimming of the news from Israel would reveal, the country is hardly closer to peace now; it’s just the disposition of factions that’s changed.
Like nearly all of Winterbottom’s work, this film judiciously balances earnestness with more visceral concerns, and mostly hits the right notes — although Starshenbaum’s chemistry with Booth isn’t as persuasive as Booth’s is with Melling. But as a potted history of a time and place not often depicted in Western cinema, this will do nicely.
Venue: Toronto International Film Festival (Special Presentations)
Cast: Irina Starshenbaum, Harry Melling, Douglas Booth, Gal Mizrav, Ian Hart, Aury Alby, Ofer Seker, Liudmyla Vasylieva, Aliosha Massine, Oliver Chris, Doron Kochavi, Yotam Ishay, Tim Wallers, Bouchaib Chtiwi, Otto Hills-Fletcher, Rony Herman, Ariel Nil Levy
Production companies: Revolution Films, Bartleby Film
Director: Michael Winterbottom
Screenwriters: Michael Winterbottom, Laurence Coriat, Paul Viragh
Producers: Melissa Parmenter, Josh Hyams, Luigi Napoleone, Massimo Di Rocco
Executive producer: Michael Winterbottom
Director of Photography: Giles Nuttgens
Production designer: Sergio Tribastone
Costume supervisor: Giada Tricomi
Editor: Marc Richardson
Sound: Rob Farr, Joakim Sundstrom, Will Whale
Music: David Holmes
Casting: Esther Kling, Anna Pennella
Sales: Vision Distribution/UTA
1 hour 59 minutes