At war with peacekeepers: ‘Whistleblower’ star Weisz, director Kondracki add punch to political thriller
Human trafficking in postwar Bosnia is the grim subject of “The Whistleblower,’’ a topical political thriller based on true events that’s anchored by a compelling performance from Rachel Weisz. She plays Kathryn Bolkovac, a cop from Lincoln, Neb., whose harrowing experience as a United Nations peacekeeper in Bosnia led to her exposing a network of sex trafficking and internal corruption.
The film opens in 1999 with Bolkovac, divorced and in need of money so that she can move closer to her teenage daughter, accepting a $100,000 one-year contract to work for the UN as a peacekeeper in post-war Bosnia. Immediately after arriving in the wild west of Sarajevo, she realizes that most of her fellow peacekeepers have little experience dealing with the crime and domestic abuse rampant all over the region.
Her investigation of a domestic abuse case gets the attention of Madeleine Rees (Vanessa Redgrave), head of the UN Women’s Rights and Gender Unit. Using her veteran police skills, Bolkovac then investigates a sex trafficking web - a sinister tangle of local thugs aided by (spoiler alert) the UN peacekeepers themselves, who, she discovers, are not only patronizing the brothels but assisting in the trafficking of girls as young as 12. “The Whistleblower’’ effectively depicts the paranoia that builds as an increasingly frustrated and outraged Bolkovac is thwarted at every turn. She builds a case against the traffickers only to be told that UN employees are granted diplomatic immunity. After she rescues two of the girls and convinces them to testify, they are recaptured and brutally punished. She becomes the lone warrior fighting for justice - along with Rees, of course. Redgrave lends integrity to her role but she may be too unimpeachable for good drama. Her presence alone eliminates any suspicion that the crimes could wend into her office. Rees’s colleague Peter Ward (David Strathairn) steps in to assist Bolkovac and brings a bit more ambiguity as he treads lightly between diplomacy and moral imperative.
Weisz channels the crusader she played in “The Constant Gardener,’’ with Bolkovac motivated by a mix of professional integrity, righteous indignation, and personal passion fueled by her frayed relationship with her own daughter. Her flawed humanity is further underscored by a spicy relationship with married Danish peacekeeper Jan van der Velde (Nikolaj Lie Kaas).
The film was shot in and around Bucharest, Romania. Director Larysa Kondracki balances her western hero with a compelling parallel story of Raya (Roxana Condurache) and Irka (Rayisa Kondracki, the director’s sister), young women so desperate to get out of Ukraine that they fall prey to traffickers. Director Kondracki portrays their exploitation in scenes of genuine terror that are not easy to watch as the captors retaliate for the girls’ cooperation with Bolkovac with physical and psychological torture.
Much like Angelina Jolie’s “A Mighty Heart,’’ “The Whistleblower’’ is a topical political thriller anchored by an actress’s powerful, de-glammed star turn. Larysa Kondracki’s impressive debut achieves its aim to shine light on an international human rights issue as well as signaling a new director to watch.
Loren King can be reached at email@example.com.