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Review: Within the Whirlwind (2009)

Directed by: Marleen Gorris | 90 minutes | drama, biography | Actors: Emily Watson, Pam Ferris, Ben Miller, Ian Hart, Ulrich Tukur, Jimmy Yuill, Agata Buzek, Benjamin Sadler, Monica Dolan, Zbigniew Zamachowski, Lena Stolze, Pearce Quigley, Krzysztof Globisz, Heinz Lieven, Pierre Shrady, Magdalena Górska, Katarzyna Bargielowska, Martin Kaps, Lukasz Garlicki, Piotr Grabowski, Maria Seweryn, Agnieszka Sienkiewicz, Radoslaw Krzyzowski, Nick Dong-Sik

For her film based on the memoirs of the Jewish-Russian Literature teacher Eugenia (Yevgenia) Ginzburg, director Marleen Gorris harked back to her pleasant collaboration with British actress Emily Watson, with whom she previously made “The Luzhin Defense” (2000). Watson previously received two Oscar nominations (for “Hilary & Jackie” and “Breaking the Waves”). Gorris even managed to cash in on such a nomination (“Antonia”, 1995). An Oscar will probably not get “Within the Whirlwind”, but that does not alter the fact that it is a nice film about an interesting character. Ginzburg’s life story on paper lends itself perfectly to a film adaptation. Little is known about this period in Russian anyway, and what could be more pleasant than absorbing a piece of history through a compelling film? Eugenia Ginzburg lived from 1904 to 1977. She studied Social Sciences and Pedagogy. After her first marriage, from which a son was born, she married Pawel Akhonov and had another son. The couple were members of the Communist Party, but in 1937 – a disaster year for the country under Stalinist regime – Eugenia was falsely accused of espousing Trotskyist ideas. First she lost her job, then her freedom. Fighting for her innocence: to no avail, but instead of the death penalty, which Eugenia feared so much, she was sentenced to ten years of hard labor. Within the Whirlwind follows Eugenia’s history until its release in 1949.

The imprisonment of an innocent and charitable woman, who is also the mother of two children: you can get angry about less. However, “Within the Whirlwind” does not quite succeed in drawing the viewer into the emotions that this unjust actually deserves. This may have to do with the fact that more than a decade passes, without you as a viewer noticing it. It might as well have been two years. The horrors that Eugenia endures – illnesses, rape and the inevitable death of people close to her – don’t always touch the viewer. That is not due to the cast, nor to the direction, but to the screenplay by Nancy Larson, which simply falls short in the structure. The viewer must have become attached too quickly to Russian society in the 1930s, as there is hardly any guidance on how to master this.

The different relationships between the women in the gulag are also not well illustrated. In addition, Eugenia’s obsession with literature, which would save her, also gets on her nerves. The fact that she is heartbroken about not seeing her sons anymore should be more of a motivation for her to want to survive. Maybe that was the case, but that is not always made tangible. It’s really nice to see in a leading role again. The actress is without a doubt capable of convincingly giving shape to the strong character. In addition to her excellent acting performances and those of her colleagues, the cinematography of “Within the Whirlwind” is worth it. Beautiful shots of icy Siberia and perfectly framed images prove that this film was made with great craftsmanship. However, these craftsmen deserved a better, more balanced script.

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