With Shoshana, Michael Winterbottom delivers a powerful political thriller intertwined with a historical romance.
From the very beginning of Shoshana, the audience is transported back in time and place to revisit a period of history that is not often shown in films or traditional media at large. Not only is it interesting to see this historical moment portrayed in a movie but it is also exciting to finally see this project on our screens as the film has been in the works for many years now. Originally, the film – previously called Promised Land – was announced in 2010 with an entirely different cast. While it did not happen then, this led the director to shoot documentary footage in Israel at the time, which is something that influences the final product that the film now is.
Set in Tel Aviv in the 1930s, Shoshana analyses the British Mandate period in Palestine and ultimately the violent foundation of the Israeli state. As tensions keep rising between the Jewish population and the British authorities occupying the territory, the film follows the romance between British police officer Thomas Wilkin (Douglas Booth) and the titular character Shoshana Borochov (Irina Starshenbaum), a member of the Haganah territorial army and supporter if an independent social Jewish state. The widespread violence across the state tests their relationship as Wilkin finds himself torn between his love for Shoshana and his duty as he is joined by another police officer, Geoffrey Morton (Harry Melling) to find and capture the poet and Zionist freedom fighter Avraham Stern (Aury Alby).
The film opens much like a documentary, with a voice-of-God narrator who introduces us to the background context and historical setting the main characters are going to move in. As the film is inspired by real events, the documentary style that keeps coming back throughout the movie keeps reminding us of the real people it is based on and the reality of the violent historical period. While Shoshana captures a complicated and violent historical period, the documentary style allows it to quickly deliver its complicated and long premise for those in the audience who may not be familiar with it without too much exposition from the very beginning of the film.
Shoshana does a good job at holding the British government accountable for its horrific actions in the post-WWI period as it does not shy away from showing them on screen. While this means that a lot of violence is present in the film, as the audience witnesses the torture method employed by the British police in Palestine, this is necessary to truly capture the reality of the time. While the focus of the film is on its main characters and the romance between them, what really sets it apart is the portrayal of the political complexities of Britain’s administration of Palestine in the post-WWI period.
While I thought Shoshana delivered an excellent portrayal of the rising tensions in Palestine at the time, I do wish we had seen more of the tensions and conflict on the Arabs’ side as well. While this is brought up in the film multiple times by various characters through dialogue, the audience only hears about it rather than actually seeing it on screen, except for a few shots when Morton gets introduced. While we sympathise and are invested in the future of the Jewish and British characters, we do not see any counterpart of those on the Arab side of the conflict, as there are no named Arab characters the audience can become interested in.
Booth, Starshenbaum, and Melling are all very convincing in their respective roles and manage to convey the high stakes and tension, especially in the second half of the film as the audience sees key historical moments of the conflict play out in the film. But Shoshana is not only a historical film, it is also a reflection on what violence and conflict can lead to. In the first half of the film, we hear the main character say “I don’t want to build a country on hate and violence,” which seems a particularly relevant commentary on the current state of affairs with multiple conflicts across the world.
Shoshana was screened at the 2023 BFI London Film Festival on 8-10 October and will be released in cinemas across UK and Ireland on Friday 16 February, 2024.