‘Shoshana’ Review: Suspenseful and Intriguing but Lacking in Agency

Michael Winterbottom has one of the most prolific filmographies of any contemporary British filmmaker. From docudrama miniseries like This England to black comedies like Greed to Palme d’Or competing projects like 24 Hour Party People, Winterbottom has shown bold experimentation and a refusal to be bound to one singular approach to media. His latest, the period drama Shoshana, is a love story thriller that Winterbottom has supposedly wanted to make for years. While it covers interesting ground, it is also mired by pacing issues and a strange lack of focus.

The story of Shoshana

Inspired by true events, Shoshana is set during the 1930s, when Britain occupied Palestine in the leadup to the Second World War. The region is in the midst of bitter conflict as Jewish communities are trying to establish Israel as a nation, but are divided on how to go about it. Shoshana Borochob (Irina Starshenbaum) is a Zionist living in Palestine. She believes that the building of Israel must occur via a peaceful negotiation that benefits both the Jewish communities seeking refuge in the aftermath of Hitler’s rise to power and the Arabic communities who currently live in the territory. But not everyone shares her views, and so guerilla warfare is being waged between self-proclaimed freedom fighters on both sides, most notably led by Avraham Stern (Aury Alby), the leader of the Zionist paramilitant group Irgun.

One of the British police officers tasked with keeping the peace is Tom Wilkin (Douglas Booth). He and Shoshana meet during his posting in the region, and the two gradually begin to fall in love. But between their conflicting roles in this hugely complicated struggle and the presence of the extremist but well-connected Stern and an aggressive, flippant officer in Geoffrey Morton (Harry Melling) only further muddies the waters of which their relationship is being denied the chance to properly blossom. 

Winterbottom showcases how the mismanaging delicate quarrels can only fan the flames of division further

Winterbottom seems to be striving for a critique on British colonialism with this picture. The conflict between Israel and Palestine is one of mind-melting intricacy, and this story set to the leadup of Israel’s founding demonstrates how the attempts to control the situation at the hands of British Imperialists did nothing to quell the issue. If anything, their interference made it worse as the methodology of thugs like Morton only stocked further inflamement for both sides of the conflict, particularly the Zionists willing to go to any means to establish their state. Through the incompetence or unworthiness of the British forces on display, including seemingly well-meaning participants like Wilkin, Winterbottom showcases how the mismanaging of delicate quarrels can only fan the flames of division further. The film’s use of long takes during moments of investigation and raiding generates some good suspense at times.

Some quite compelling performances aid Winterbottom in telling this story. Booth’s role is that of a character caught between allegiances towards Shoshana and the colonialist government whose will he is enforcing. Booth portrays that struggle between desire and duty very well. Meanwhile, Starshenbaum demonstrates the effects of jadedness superbly as her character becomes further and further exhausted by the nature of the conflict and how it affects the people around her. Harry Melling has proven himself quite a formidable actor in the years following his Harry Potter days. From The Ballad of Buster Scruggs to The Queen’s Gambit, he has shown a willingness to take on a diversity of roles that test his range. His performance as the despicable, power-hungry Morton is the best of the film. A terrifying role of a man driven by self-righteousness, ego, and prejudice, Melling’s performance is gripping.

The movie Shoshana  is difficult to engage with

However, the imbalanced storytelling in Shoshana and the lack of urgency given to its titular heroine makes this film rather difficult to engage with. It’s sluggishly paced as the story hops between characters and events without a sense of coherent chronology. The mundane use of mid-shots throughout creates a feeling of impassiveness that might have suited a documentary but, when applied here, makes the direction feel lacking. It gives us historical facts but doesn’t dedicate enough time to the storytelling behind its romance or the bigger complexities of the struggle. The Arabic community is all but relegated to the background after a while, even though they have as much reason to be in this conflict as their Jewish counterparts.

Despite being called Shoshana, Shoshana herself doesn’t get much screen time, especially when compared to Wilkin and Morton. If this was an intentional choice then why call the film Shoshana at all, especially because Shoshana’s arc, on paper, is a compelling one. Without going too deeply into spoilers, her arc is one of disillusionment. She begins the film wanting a peaceful co-existence between Jews and Arabs but eventually finds herself taking up arms against the latter – a pretty extreme change in beliefs. Given the context of the film, one could see how she ends up going down that rabbit hole, but with so little screen time, this transition and her character as a whole are undercooked. 

Maybe Shoshana is a story that would’ve been better suited as a television drama. It certainly would’ve had more time to delve into the characters and more complex matters of this conflict, which is still being seen to this day. Given the abhorrent genocide that is currently being inflicted on the civilians of Palestine under the pretense of Israeli self-defense, we need stories that are willing to earnestly and comprehensibly address the complications of the Israel-Palestine conflict.

Despite its observations on the evils of colonialism, Shoshana does not sufficiently do this. It’s a love story with an underwritten romance and a historical commentary that doesn’t seem to appreciate the enormity of the backdrop it is working with. Its titular heroine is a side character, and its moments of genuine thrills are outnumbered by the moments of boredom and lack of focus. It’s a historical slog. 

Shoshana is now playing in UK theaters.

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