The talented Rachel Weisz won an Oscar for playing a brave but doomed idealist in 2005’s The Constant Gardener, and has now done equally creditable work playing a similarly idealistic but very different heroine in The Whistleblower. Based on true events and set in postwar Bosnia, a de-glammed Weisz plays real-life Nebraska cop Kathryn Bolkovac, who in the late 1990s took a six-month contract to provide peacekeeping services in a Bosnia still seething with ethnic hatreds. Little did she know where the real problems would be coming from.
Bolkovac was working for one of those Blackwater-style private security firms under a mandate from the United Nations. Her naïve hope was to make a difference in these war-torn lives. Before long she realizes underage girls are being trafficked as prostitutes in seedy bars; even worse, a lot of the clientele in those bars are the very soldiers and security officers hired to protect civilians. Bolkovac digs a bit deeper and discovers that these girls are literally sex slaves, trucked in from neighbouring countries and subjected to the harshest of brutalities.
Early on she intervenes to help a pair of Romanian teenagers she has come across. But she is quietly stymied – and eventually actively sabotaged – by her own people, who are either happy with the status quo or complicit in the human trafficking operation. Encouraged by two allies – a senior representative of the Human Rights Commission (Vanessa Redgrave) and a member of Internal Affairs (David Strathairn) who stands outside the regular chain of command – Bolkovac bravely pushes forward, despite eventually being ostracized by most of her co-workers and at the risk of her own life.
Directed by Canadian first-timer Larysa Kondracki, Whistleblower is a grim and horrifying exposé with an incendiary story to tell. Much of the colour has been leached from the film stock, and a lot of the scenes were shot at night: it’s a confusing, violent, and hellish world where you can’t tell Croats from Bosnians – and you certainly can’t trust your fellow officers. Considerable suspense is generated as Bolkovac uncovers the full extent of the criminality: not only is her investigation personally dangerous, but it also brings down the wrath of the company employing her (which, if exposed, stands to lose a contract worth many millions). More offensively, she butts heads with officious U.N. bureaucrats who would rather sacrifice a bunch of “war whores” than see the U.N.’s reputation get tarnished.
Some of the storytelling is a bit blunt, and the resolution is dramatically unsatisfying (which is not the film’s fault). But even if Whistleblower can sometimes feel like a goosed-up episode of The Passionate Eye, it’s still a harrowing, punch-to-the-gut drama whose deficiencies are eclipsed by Weisz’s powerhouse performance. The scene where she cries tears of rage when a rescue attempt is thwarted by her own guys is, quite simply, unforgettable. M
The Whistleblower ★★★½
Directed by Larysa Kondracki
Starring Rachel Weisz
R – 112 minutes
Continues at the Odeon