Like “Antonia’s Line” and “Mrs. Dalloway,” Dutch helmer Marleen Gorris’ latest cinematic paean to female fortitude places a strong woman at the flashpoint of historical change. Based on Evgenia Ginzburg’s memoirs, “Within the Whirlwind” chronicles the high-ranking professor’s fall from grace during the Stalinist purges and her subsequent 10-year incarceration in Soviet gulags. If Gorris never quite liberates her narrative from its biopic-driven adherence to a single, heroic p.o.v., Emily Watson’s stunning, all-consuming perf sweeps all before it in a virtuoso interpretation of courage under fire. A Jewish fest fave, this English-language pic’s distinctly nonsectarian slant spells crossover potential.
Watson’s Ginzburg, a leading intellectual and true believer in the brave new communist world, only slowly comprehends the profound changes wrought by Stalin’s ascension to power. Invigorated by classes where her lively wit and intense engagement win the loyalty of students, and privately reveling with her fellow-traveler hubby (Benjamin Sadler) and two young sons, she naively assumes that the party bosses know what they’re doing. Gorris skillfully builds tension between Ginzburg’s self-confident belief in logic and justice and the growing cravenness and urge for self-preservation among those around her.
Her refusal to kowtow to bullies and philistines (rising in the ranks under Stalin’s paranoid regime) stems as much from pride as from conviction, as evidenced by her glee at getting her teaching prohibition temporarily lifted. Indeed her inability (or unwillingness) to entirely suppress a triumphant little smile when crossing the path of a KGB-type nemesis (a wonderfully hateful Ian Hart) leads to more severe charges being filed.
Soon she is shivering in a prison cell, keeping sane by reciting verse (Gorris and co-scripter Nancy Larson thread poetry as an alternate discourse throughout). When, after months of privation, she still refuses to sign a confession, Ginzburg is tried in a kangaroo court, Watson’s eyes straying in shocked disbelief from the legal proceedings to a nearby clock as her guilt is decided in six minutes flat.
The pic is at its most strikingly idiosyncratic when exploring this surreal gap between the heroine’s intellectual individualism and the Kafkaesque rationale of the state. Once Ginzburg is sent to the gulags, however, “Whirlwind” shifts into a less dialectic mode as victimization takes a more physical form.
Beaten by guards and harassed by criminal inmates, Ginzburg rallies the political detainees around her in tableaux of feminist solidarity. The pic tips toward melodrama when Ginzburg, learning of her family’s fate, sinks into suicidal depression, the women closing ranks to protect her until the possibility of romance with a compassionate German doctor (the excellent Ulrich Tukur) gives her the will to survive.
Gorris’ gulag interludes never lapse into mere cliche, the helmer even managing to spice up the love story with over-the-top touches. But the prison setting gives Gorris’ historical sense and savvy political irony (doubtless what attracted her to Ginzburg’s story in the first place) little to work with. Watson retains flashes of her character’s sarcastic flair but, lacking a foil to give it full sway, soon finds herself absorbed in the timelessness of heroism.