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WROCLAW, POLAND — War is hell, and hell is murky – these are the lessons of Manhunt (Ob?awa), Polish writer-director Marcin Krzystalowicz‘s ostentatiously grim and frustratingly jumbled return to feature-films following a decade-long hiatus. Functioning best as a character-study of one experience-hardened WW2 resistance-fighter, it benefits massively from the ever-reliable Marcin Doroci?ski‘s convincingly dour central performance. Nevertheless, only so-so domestic returns are like to accrue after its October 19 release for this undistinguished addition to the long list of downbeat Polish wartime chronicles.
And while nabbing the runner-up Silver Lion prize at Poland’s national film festival at Gdynia back in May won’t do it any harm, emulating the international exposure enjoyed by that event’s big winner – Agnieszka Holland‘s foreign-language Oscar nominee In Darkness, with also dealt with war-years horrors and with which Manhunt shared editing honors — is a remote prospect.
That award for Wojciech Mrówczy?ski and Adam Kwiatek‘s cutting, meanwhile, was arguably a charitable choice given Manhunt’s confusing flashback structure and a disorienting choppiness that afflicts certain scenes. This may be at least equally the fault of Krzystalowicz’s screenplay, of course, his first credit since his sophomore effort End of the Holidays (2003), also his last directorial outing.
The story here isn’t particularly complicated, and might even be exposed as somewhat slim if related in conventional linear fashion — perhaps explaining the decision to take a more ambitious time-hopping approach. Early sequences are straightforward enough, as we observe Doroci?ski’s grizzled, taciturn Corporal Wydra — i.e. ‘Otter’ (the partisans adopt animal-based codenames). Wydra goes about his business as his forest-based unit’s appointed executioner, dispatching collaborators and traitors with dispassionate professionalism.
These include his former schoolfriend Henryk (Maciej Stuhr, cast against type), a successful businessman now unhappily married to Wydra’s old flame Hanna (Sonia Bohosiewicz), and known as an informer working for the despised Nazi occupiers. Henryk’s demise causes Wydra to ponder his own past actions, and ultimately yields dramatic consequences for all when the resistance discovers a a turncoat among its own ranks.
Krzystalowicz’s script is at its strongest when examining the relationship between Wydra and Henryk, especially when the latter realizes what’s afoot — both in terms of his imminent fate, and also regarding his wife’s long-dormant feelings for Wydra. But Henryk is too much of a two-dimensional nasty — a fleshy-faced, piggy-eyed sexual exploiter of vulnerable women – to give Manhunt much genuine ambiguity, and the female characters are somewhat thinly drawn.
And as this is a predominantly a reflective affair composed mainly of dialogue and pregnant silences, with only very occasional spurts of action, Krzystalowicz can’t quite craft a robust narrative framework worthy of Doroci?ski’s quietly tragic, hard-bitten intensity.
It certainly doesn’t help that the star very recently ventured into similar terrain via Wocjiech Smarzowski’s far superior Rose, another 1940s-set drama of rural Polish passions which was released there only in February. Manhunt is, despite its gimmicky structure, a much more conventional affair: Arkadiusz Tomiak‘s cinematography favors foggy-dusty backlighting for interiors, while Krzystalowicz’s direction veers towards TV-movie functionality and isn’t immune to cliché.
On the plus side, veteran sound-designer Piotr Domaradzki unobtrusively adds to the downbeat mood. Flocks of transiting geese honk happily overhead, counterpointing the tough, Defiance-like conditions endured by the forest-dwelling partisans as they cope with a harsh world of unremitting, sometimes stomach-churning brutality. Subtle, ominously bell-like susurrations emphasize the ever-present shadow of death: specifically, the Germans’ imminent ‘manhunt’, an event frequently discussed by the stoic resistance-heroes and which provides the picture’s title.
But the moniker is deliberately misleading: the picture only traces events leading up to the manhunt, leaving the remainder to our imagination. It’s an audacious gambit, to be sure, but one that requires a stronger overall creative hand than Krzystalowicz can muster.
Venue: New Horizons Film Festival, Wroc?aw, Poland, July 22, 2012.
Production company: Skorpion Arte
Cast: Marcin Doroci?ski, Maciej Stuhr, Sonia Bohosiewicz, Weronika Rosati
Director / Screenwriter: Marcin Krzyszta?owicz
Producers: Ma?gorzata Jurczak, Krzysztof Gr?dzi?ski
Executive producer: Ma?gorzata Jurczak
Director of photography: Arkadiusz Tomiak
Production designer: Grzegorz Skawi?ski
Costume designer: Magdalena Rutkiewicz
Editors: Wojciech Mrówczy?ski, Adam Kwiatek
Sales agent: Kino ?wiat, Warsaw
No MPAA rating, 85 minutes.
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