×

The Whistleblower

A tense, focused piece of storytelling with a powerful sense of empathy.

With:
Kathryn Bolkovac - Rachel Weisz Peter Ward - David Strathairn Jan Van Der Velde - Nikolaj Lie Kaas Zoe - Anna Anissimova Raya - Roxana Condurache Laura Levin - Monica Bellucci Madeleine Rees - Vanessa Redgrave

Human trafficking in postwar Bosnia, enabled by the United Nations workers sent there to maintain peace and order, is the sad subject of Canadian director Larysa Kondracki’s harrowingly effective thriller, “The Whistleblower.” While the scenario of a Western do-gooder fighting injustice abroad often makes for sanctimonious, hand-wringing issue cinema, this accomplished debut feature avoids most of the usual pitfalls, channeling its outrage into a tense, focused piece of storytelling with a powerful sense of empathy. Bleak, often unbearable subject matter poses a real commercial challenge, but Rachel Weisz’s topnotch turn could improve the film’s prospects.

Scripted by Kondracki and Eilis Kirwan, “The Whistleblower” is based on the experiences of Kathryn Bolkovac, a cop from Lincoln, Neb., who in 1999 accepted a $100,000 one-year contract to work for the U.N. in Bosnia. After establishing Kathy (Weisz) as a single mom hoping to make enough money to move closer to her daughter, the film ships her off to Sarajevo, where she heads the org’s Gender Office, working with local cops to investigate rape, domestic abuse and sex trafficking.

Idealistic Kathy is determined to do her part in healing the war-torn nation; her arrival produces immediate results, earning her the approbation and friendship of Madeleine Rees (Vanessa Redgrave), head of the U.N. Human Rights Commission, as well as the romantic attentions of a fellow agent (Nikolaj Lie Kaas). But her job becomes far more difficult when she learns that local bar owners are trafficking women, and that her U.N. colleagues are not only abetting the dirty trade but also visiting the brothels regularly.

Kathy sets out to expose this corrupt operation — no easy task, given that all U.N. employees are granted diplomatic immunity, and the head of the repatriation program (Monica Bellucci, more haggard than usual) is useless to the point of complicity. Kathy’s determination is strengthened by the plight of two Ukrainian sex slaves, Raya (Roxana Condurache) and Irka (Rayisa Kondracki), whom she encourages to testify against their captors, with devastating consequences.

Pic soon descends into darkness both figurative and literal (nighttime lensing predominates, and d.p. Kieran McGuigan bathes many of the outdoor shots in a greenish murk), and Weisz’s performance holds the viewer every step of the way. Her Kathy could be a spiritual sister to the anti-Big Pharma crusader Weisz played in “The Constant Gardener”; it’s a conventional but gripping star turn, fueled by a righteous combo of human decency and fearless initiative.

Like most films of its type, “The Whistleblower” exists mainly to shed light on a sobering topic (bluntly brought home in the final reels), but it provides no shortage of dramatic satisfactions along the way. And while some may fault the film for favoring a white outsider’s perspective, the better to ease mainstream audiences into issues they’d rather not think about, its deployment of Kathy as an entry point makes simple dramatic sense, given that this is a story about a Westerner bringing to light specifically Western abuses of power.

Even still, the film takes pains to do right by Irka and especially Raya (played with agonizing vulnerability by Condurache), regarding them with dignity under even the most nightmarish of circumstances. One especially grueling scene of torture in the brothels arguably crosses the line and will have viewers squirming in their seats, yet one always senses a storyteller trying to do justice to the scenario’s horrors rather than exploit them.

Low-budget production was shot over 36 days, primarily in Bucharest, Romania. Rounding out the fine cast are Jeanette Hain as Raya’s mother and David Strathairn as a U.N. associate who comes into play during the surprisingly suspenseful sequence that caps the picture.

Popular on Variety

The Whistleblower

Canada-Germany

Production: An eOne Entertainment presentation in association with Voltage Pictures of a Whistleblower Canada/Barry Films co-production, with the participation of Telefilm Canada, in association with Sunrise Pictures, Primary Prods., First Generation Films, Mandalay Vision, Picture Perfect Corp. and Film Capital Europe Funds, Indomitable Entertainment, with the participation of Astral's Harold Greenberg Fund, Ontario Media Development Corp., in association with the Movie Network, Movie Central. (International sales: Voltage Pictures, Los Angeles.) Produced by Christina Piovesan, Celine Rattray. Executive producers, Amy Kaufman, Sergei Bespalov, Nicolas Chartier. Co-producers, Benito Mueller, Wolfgang Mueller, Robert Bernacchi. Directed by Larysa Kondracki. Screenplay, Eilis Kirwan, Kondracki.

Crew: Camera (Arri color, widescreen), Kieran McGuigan; editor, Julian Clarke; music, Mychael Danna; music supervisor, David Hayman; production designer, Caroline Foellmer; art director, Vlad Vieru; costume designer, Gersha Phillips; sound, Erika Schengili-Roberts; supervising sound editors, Mark Gingras, John Laing; special effects supervisors, Adi Popescu, Nick Allder; visual effects supervisors, Noel Hooper, Christa Tazzeo; visual effects, Invisible Pictures; stunt coordinator, Ciprian Dumitrascu; associate producer, Jimmy De Brabant; assistant director, David Antoniuk; second unit camera, Tobias Datum; casting, Jenny Lewis, Sara Kay. Reviewed at Toronto Film Festival (Special Presentations), Sept. 13, 2010. Running time: 114 MIN.

Cast: Kathryn Bolkovac - Rachel Weisz Peter Ward - David Strathairn Jan Van Der Velde - Nikolaj Lie Kaas Zoe - Anna Anissimova Raya - Roxana Condurache Laura Levin - Monica Bellucci Madeleine Rees - Vanessa RedgraveWith: Jeanette Hain, Rayisa Kondracki. (English, Ukrainian, Russian, Bosnian dialogue)

More Scene

  • Taron Egerton Elton John Rocketman Live

    Elton John and Taron Egerton Duet at 'Rocketman' Awards Season Event at the Greek Theatre

    “Rocketman” has officially launched into awards season. Paramount hosted a screening of the film with a live-performance of the score by the Hollywood Symphony Orchestra and a headlining performance by Elton John and the film’s star Taron Egerton. John and Egerton — who is in contention for best actor for his portrayal of the singer [...]

  • Hailee Steinfeld Dickinson Premiere

    Hailee Steinfeld, Jane Krakowski on What Modern Women Can Learn From Emily Dickinson

    Emily Dickinson lived in the 1800s, but if you ask the team behind Apple TV Plus’ upcoming series, “Dickinson,” her story is more current than ever. Hailee Steinfeld stars in the the modern-day retelling of the poet’s young life. The actress — who makes her first full-time foray into television with the role and also [...]

  • Don Cheadle

    ACLU Bill of Rights Gala to Honor Don Cheadle, Feature Appearances by Selena Gomez, Regina Hall

    The American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California will honor “Avengers: Endgame” and “Black Monday” star Don Cheadle at the organization’s annual Bill of Rights dinner on Nov. 17 at the Beverly Wilshire Hotel. Cheadle will be recognized for his activist work as an advocate for racial and gender equality, immigration reform, reproductive and LGBTQ [...]

  • Helen Mirren attends the LA Premiere

    Why Helen Mirren Considers Catherine the Great to Be 'Superhuman'

    It’s no secret that Dame Helen Mirren has a knack for nailing regal roles. Following her Oscar-winning on-screen reign as Queen Elizabeth II back in 2006, the thespian brings yet another powerful ruler to life in HBO’s limited mini-series “Catherine the Great.” Just as she does on the small screen as Russian Empress Catherine II, [...]

  • Taika Waititi Jojo Rabbit Premiere

    Why Director Taika Waititi Decided to Play Adolf Hitler in 'Jojo Rabbit'

    “Fox Searchlight blackmailed me into doing it,” Taika Waititi told Variety of playing Adolf Hilter in “Jojo Rabbit” at the film’s premiere at American Legion Post 43 on Tuesday night in Hollywood. Staying mum when asked which other actors had been on his wish list to play the role, Waititi explained why he eventually decided [...]

  • Jessica Biel Limetown Premiere

    Why 'Limetown' Star & Producer Jessica Biel Thought the Show Was Based on a True Story

    In a world of increasingly outlandish headlines, the story behind “Limetown” — in which an entire community in rural Tennessee disappears overnight — seems plausible. Even Jessica Biel, who executive produces and stars in the Facebook Watch television adaptation of the hit 2015 podcast, was initially convinced that it was real. “I just thought I [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content