In adapting Olga Tokarczuk’s novel for the big screen, Agnieszka Holland merged a cinematic fairy tale with an environmental thriller. Unfortunately, it lacks charm as a fairy tale and suspense as a thriller.
Janina Duszejko is a 50-something with quite some time on her hands and a gentle heart. She is kind to people, and even more so to animals. She loves them unconditionally, treats them as if they were her family and mourns their death on par with the death of her loved ones. It’s not surprising that it is her that opposes a conglomerate of hunters that are in charge of the town where she lives. When the body of a murdered hunter is found in this normally peaceful place, this eccentric environmentalist is going to try and help the police uncover the mystery of his death.
In Spoor Agnieszka Holland depicts a black-or-white world, where good and evil are in constant struggle against each other, without any room for the shades of grey and ambivalent stances. A ruthless priest (Marcin Bosak), a creepy old drunk businessman (Andrzej Grabowski), and a foul-mouthed fur farmer, portrayed by Borys Szyc, are one-dimensional antagonists here. On the other side, there is an angelic host – an animal-loving teacher (Agnieszka Mandat), a fragile country girl (Patrycja Volny), an IT specialist with a poet’s soul (Jakub Gierszał), a scientist from the Czech Republic with a hippie past (Miroslav Krobot) and a lonely, older man, who cannot get rid of his traumatic past (Wiktor Zborowski).
There is no middle ground here. The former group is clearly evil and aggressive, and the latter try to save their animal friends. When the hunters are in the frame, we can see their mouths and teeth, when the good guys are talking, the camera focuses on their eyes, as everyone knows that the eyes are the doorway to the soul, so the hunters cannot be shown in that way, as they clearly have no soul. The way that the story is told resembles family movies from the 1980s, where brave kids take on a gang of evil poachers at summer camp.
This overly simplified, infantile vision of the world is not the only problem that Holland’s movie faces. An even bigger one proves to be complete lack of suspense, which dissolves in the abundance of declarative dialogues and pedagogical phrases uttered by the main character.
It is exactly the main character that is both the biggest weakness and the greatest strength of the movie. Holland makes an aging woman her protagonist, an undertaking alien on the Polish movie scene, where women like that are usually completely invisible, or appear only as the wife or mother of the main character. Apart from these roles, they seem to be completely useless or uninteresting to Polish filmmakers.
This is the part that deserves recognition and praise in Spoor. Agnieszka Holland, without holding back, creates the tale of a lonely woman and her emotions and sexuality. But that’s as far as the praise goes. Even though we do feel sympathetic towards the character played by Agnieszka Mandat, we cannot really root for her. On one hand, Duszejko completely lacks any kind of rational thinking ability (to prove that we can recall an absurd scene where she looks for dogs at night with a group of small children), on the other – quite paradoxically, she turns out to be a completely passive character. She is supposed to fight for a better world, but ends up just observing the passing changes. We don’t know what her ultimate goal is, how she plans to achieve it, or what she does to reach it. The most interesting plot point does not happen on screen, they are just presented to us as the ultimate truth that is revealed by the director in the finale.
The movie is also riddled with logical fallacies. The village IT guy is also a genius hacker? All these create quite a caricature of an image. Instead of a thrilling suspense, Spoor invokes a bitter smile. Surely, there are some witty dialogues – a mention of ‘testosterone autism’ that makes aging men quirky and pushes them towards reading about Hitler. There is also a mention of mushroom-picking as a national sport for old Polish haters. However, all these are overshadowed by a tale of heartless people and noble enviromentalists from Polish countryside.
One of typical phrases that critics often utter is ‘the movie poses questions but doesn’t give any answers’. Well, it is quite the opposite with Spoor. Agnieszka Holland does not pose any questions, but she gives numerous and broad answers. Once we see that there is only one secondary character in the shot, we can be sure that their story is going to follow soon. A girl from the second-hand shop; a young IT guy; a old, quirky guy from the neighbourhood – they all, straightforwardly, recount their stories, without any sense of mystery. Holland does not hold on the her secrets, she lays them bare, as if giving up on any kind of game with viewers.
Of course, the final plot twists do let the director regain control, or even shatter our expectations, but unfortunately we are far away from the story by that point. Spoor was supposed to be a full-blown thriller and eco-crime story, but ended up being a merry story about a black-and-white world with the utopian idea that this world is easy to repair.
- Pokot (eng. Spoor), Directed by Agnieszka Holland, Kasia Adamik. Screenplay by Agnieszka Holland, Olga Tokarczuk. Starring: Agnieszka Mandat, Jakub Gierszał, Wuktor Zborowski, Borys Szyc. Release date: 24 February 2017.
Written by Bartosz Staszczyszyn, translated by AS