This fictionalised account of the real-life story of ex-Nebraskan cop Kathryn Bolkovac’s fight against sex trafficking during a stint in 1999 as a UN peacekeeper in post-war Bosnia falls far short of realising its dramatic potential.
One of the problems is that the filmmakers seem intent on educating the audience on the horrors of the sex trade. Who needs convincing that this appalling trade is a) a reality and b) abhorrent?
Further, characterisation has been neglected in the relentless and overzealous pursuit of an essentially didactic agenda: Bolkovac (Rachel Weisz) is ingenuous and melodramatic in her shock and disgust as she comes face to face with the sordid milieu of the sex trade and the involvement of corrupt police, UN personnel and US contractors to the peacekeeping effort.
She’s supposed to be a hardnosed cop ferchissake! So hard-nosed that her commitment to the job has resulted in custody of her child being awarded to her ex-husband. It has to be said, losing her kid to her job doesn’t do much to enhance her sympathetic appeal as a character, and ditto her later decision to live in Holland with her new partner rather than return to be near her daughter in the States, as she promises in the beginning of the movie. The idealism and naivete she brings to her investigation of the sex trade are even less credible in juxtaposition with her maternal flaws! Some balance of character qualities needed here.
Worse, though, is the treatment doled out to her male counterparts, who are mere simple-minded sketches. The cops are presented without exception as inhumane bastards on the take from the traffickers and brothel owners, who are, of course, even more inhumane bastards (fair enough in this instance – not too many top blokes in that line of business). But it seems that most of the UN peacekeepers are brothel-patronising inhumane bastards as well, and the bastardry extends all the way to the top. Not to mention the local male population, who apparently routinely assault their wives in the knowledge that domestic abuse is not taken seriously by the police or Bosnian courts. Indeed, as depicted here, the whole of Bosnia is a stage for misogynistic outrage.
The two exceptions to this all-encompassing male bastardry are minor characters – Kathryn Bolkovac’s Dutch lover Jan (Nikolaj Lie Kaas) and whistle-blower-accomplice Peter Ward (David Strathairn), who helps her obtain the evidence she needs to blow the lid on the complicity of UN personnel in the sex trade business. Kathy’s mentor and confidante, Madelaine Rees (Vanessa Redgrave), is a shining beacon of grace, compassion and justice-seeking wisdom in the human landscape of male depravity. No greys here – it’s all back or white.
There is an attempt to give the victims of the sex trade a face in the person of Raya (Roxanna Condurache), who is shown early in the movie as a happy-go-lucky Ukranian teenager in search of adventure. Lured and sold into sex slavery in Bosnia by her uncle, she is transformed into a tortured zombie, but is not given enough oxygen to develop as a character. In the end, she is not much more than a wretched chattel, distinguishable from the other victims of the sex trade only by the extremity of the brutality meted out to her.
The crudeness of the characterisation, didactic nature of the writing and direction, and a glaring logic flaw towards the narrative climax that spoiler-consciousness precludes me from specifying add up to a fatally flawed film. It’s not quite a dog, though. There is enough tension throughout to maintain interest and some quality actors add a bit of class, but really, the talent is wasted here. At best, this is a mediocre political thriller that misses the opportunity to tap into the drama and emotional power that is inherent in the source material.
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