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Cold War ★★★★★

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Released: 31st August 2018

Directed By: Pawel Pawlikowski

Starring: Joanna Kulig, Tomasz Kot

Reviewed By: Rhys Handley

Whatever happened to the classic movie romances? There’s romantic movies out there still, sure, but those sweeping, smouldering passions that positively crackled on the screen – say, Casablanca, Brief Encounter or My Fair Lady – seem cast away to a bygone era of monochrome celluloid and swelling orchestras.

In the form of Cold War – the latest from director Pawel Pawlikowski – the classic movie romance returns. But it’s different – weather-beaten and embittered by the intervening years. A lovingly-realised tribute to his parents, Polish-born, British-raised Pawlikowski has crafted here something inherently, misty-eyedly classic, yet starkly, bleakly modern – the romance of Hollywood colliding with the harsh realism of cold war-era Eastern Europe.

Spanning about a decade of European history from the late 40s to near the dawn of the 60s, Cold War is beset with a ubiquitous sense of unease and paranoia from the start. Sudden cuts to black signal jarring leaps forward in time, while scenes of terror and trepidation are consumed in a cacophony of ambient sound.

But wrapped in this blanket of wartime discomfort is a fiery, enduring romance for the ages, with a star pairing of immense calibre and appeal. Joanna Kulig and Tomasz Kot are the kind of match whose power is indefinable and impossible to manufacture – two excellent performers egging each other on to bolder and more surprising feats of actorly craft.

What starts in a tremendous, uncomfortable imbalance of power – Kot’s Wiktor is the stern, demanding conductor of a travelling folk music troupe and Zula (Kulig) is his precious, prodigious protege – quickly tilts into a fiercely equalised tug-of-war. Diametrically opposed, yet intrinsically bound, Wiktor and Zula lose and find each other in numerous wrenching, tragic episodes across the ensuing years – their connection gradually deepening, but their differences quietly festering, as they challenge and explore each other.

Kot is excellent – persistently stoic and impenetrable, allowing Wiktor fleeting moments of vulnerability amid a life of uncertainty and continual escape – but Kulig is truly spellbinding.

Sporting a face that at different times recalls a number of modern leading ladies – Jennifer Lawrence, Léa Seydoux, Michelle Williams and Jessica Chastain among them – Kulig has the look of a vintage romantic lead. As Wiktor’s junior, she plays Zula at once childlike and wet-eyed, but with enigma and irascibility that begins as a knowing wink and slowly unspools across the piece into a furious disarray of volatile, intrinsic feeling.

Written with celebrated Polish playwright Janusz Glowacki, Pawlikowski’s script crackles with immortal barbs and one-liners that bring Zula and Wiktor palpably to life. Populated with humbly touching confessions, withering put-downs and deep wisdom, it is a humane, full text lifted from the page and made tangible by two players at the height of their powers.

Pawlikowski, whose cinematic career started with 2000’s desolate, lo-fi immigration drama Last Resort, emerges here as a confident, self-assured directorial hand. As his earlier efforts indicated a shift in identity and approach with each new film, Cold War serves to confirm his more clearly-defined voice, first cultivated in 2013’s stellar Ida – the director’s first effort in his native Polish language.

In sharp, dreamlike black and white, Pawlikowski generates an Old Hollywood fairytale aura with slow, steady cranes and serene long takes, often harshly punctuated with tight, claustrophobic close-ups and uncomfortable edits. Working in monochrome, his cinematographer Łukasz Żal plays deep blacks and soft whites against each other, playing with the struggle between east and west that permeates so much of the film – this is also realised in the prevalence of traditional Polish mountain folk music that slowly gives way on one side to burly Stalinist anthems and on the other to the booze-drenched excitement of free jazz and burgeoning rock and roll.

The interplay of diametric opposites – as much between Zula and Wiktor as the titular struggle between western liberalism and eastern communism – bisects Cold War. It creates a piece of cinema at war with itself, but deftly brought together by a director with inherent trust in his colleagues. Blissfully romantic, but inherently downbeat, it is a film with vision and passion at its heart – a sweeping, classical romance keeping one foot in our sad, real world.

London-based journalist moonlighting as flailing amateur film critic. Waiting for Greta Gerwig and Barry Jenkins to team up and save the world. Terrified of inevitable Star Wars over-saturation. Proud Yorkshire kid.

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