Between 2 Fires

Between 2 Fires


Reviewed by: David Graham

Agnieszka Lukasiak addresses the dire situation of European refugees in an epic drama that manages to transcend politicised trappings while still making a powerful statement about the reality of our supposedly united continent. Young Polish film-maker Agnieszka Lukasiak has previously concentrated on documentaries, but here makes a hugely impressive transition to writing and directing, marshalling a clutch of excellent performances that do justice to her surprisingly balanced script and rounded characters.

Magdalena Poplawska dominates almost every scene as Marta, a young mother from Belarus who finds herself forced to flee her homeland when her abusive alcoholic husband sells her daughter Anna to the local pimp. Riskily making off with the girl and his money, Marta runs for Sweden, encouraged to follow her workmate's advice and seek the woman's cousin, who escaped there previously and now appears to live a life of luxury.

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The detention camp where they must base themselves proves a forbidding place, in which they must share living quarters with an unhinged Jordanian woman while constantly protecting themselves from sexual predators. The advances of a handsome but suspicious Iranian man named Ali are initially rebuked by Marta, but even as she begins to embrace this friendship and the opportunity of a new life, the threat of deportation continues to hang heavy over them all.

The grim situations of domestic abuse and sexual menace that the film opens with immediately make the audience expect it to be a real slog, but Lukasiak manages to fully convey the small delights that Marta and Anna experience on their journey, as well as the crushing disappointments. By addressing their highs as well as their lows - and by leaving the motivations of several other characters tantalisingly ambiguous - the director takes what could easily just have been another harsh slice of Euro-misery and transforms it into a fraught, resonant emotional roller-coaster, with all the impact and intrigue of a good thriller.

Smoothly integrated revelations frequently turn our preconceptions on their heads, leaving the audience as on edge as Marta herself, frantically trying to protect her daughter from the negative influences surrounding them, whether it's the leering objectification of men or the paranoid pessimism of their room-mate Anissa.

Poplawska anchors the whole film with her performance, clinging on to hope despite the overwhelming odds against her, mixing strength with vulnerability and naivete with determination. It's a joy to see her slowly reveal more layers of Marta's character, through the relationship she treasures with her daughter and those she hesitantly forges with Ali and Anissa.

Kamila Nowysz proves a real find as little Anna; it's a hugely demanding role that puts her in some upsetting situations, but she is so natural and charming that you can't help but hope the best for her. Leila Haji is excellent as the initially protective Anissa, her hard exterior slowly breaking down as she realizes that she may have found friends she can finally trust in the makeshift family unit that is forming around her.

As Ali, Simon Kassianides makes a strong impression too, conveying the trauma that makes his character dangerously unpredictable but also fundamentally decent; much of the film's tension derives from his part in Marta's saga. While each of the actors makes their character easy to relate to individually, the way in which they interact with each other makes this group of damaged outcasts entirely sympathetic. It's even more impressive that Poplawska manages such fine performances in so many languages, even mining their inability to understand each other for some particularly intense scenes.

While the film covers many horrific subjects - from suicide to the sex industry and, in particular, the masculine mentality that sees rape as acceptable release - it's to Lukasiak's eternal credit that Between 2 Fires is never quite the ordeal it threatens to be. She keeps things rolling at a bracing pace, and interjects scenes of well-played, subtly shot drama with unashamedly emotional moments that put both the effective score and some uplifting pop music to good use.

Marta's eventual sexual awakening in particular could have been handled a little awkwardly, but it comes as a heartfelt relief after her early efforts to so carefully avoid any situation that could lead her or her daughter to be hurt. The two-hour running time could definitely have been trimmed by editing out some unnecessary montages and leaving some of the secondary characters a little more undeveloped, but everything is so considered and never as simple as it first appears, so Lukasiak's various digressions seem worthwhile in the end.

Overall, it's a riveting film with a huge amount of depth and a brilliantly deceptive narrative, only occasionally slipping into mawkish sentiment and obvious grand-standing. While the hard lessons it contains may put off some potential audiences, it should be celebrated for how bravely it incorporates levity into an undeniably harrowing experience, fearlessly exposing how many refugees have their hopes built up only to be dumped by government systems that can't cope and don't care.

Reviewed on: 28 Jun 2011
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Robert Munro **

Director: Agnieszka Lukasiak

Starring: Magda Poplawska, Kamila Nowysc, Simon Kassianides, Leila Haj

Year: 2010

Runtime: 130 minutes

Country: Sweden, Poland


EIFF 2011

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