In Canadian director Larysa Kondracki's gripping based-on-a-true-story debut feature The Whistleblower, Rachel Weisz delivers a subtle yet riveting performance as a Nebraska cop who confronts the heart of darkness – sex-slave trafficking – after taking a lucrative short-term job with an international police task force supporting peacekeeping in Sarajevo in 1999.
One of few women on the force, Kathy Bolkovac (Weisz) soon stands out for, as the character frequently says in the movie, "just doing my job." After facilitating the first conviction of domestic violence since the end of the war, she is asked to head the local gender office by Madeleine Rees (Vanessa Redgrave), an official in the U.N.'s human rights high commission. The job involves investigating crimes related to women, including sex trafficking.
"You up for it?" Rees asks. A simple but loaded question. It's clear the U.N. brass in this film – David Strathairn in a small but pivotal role as a seemingly sympathetic insider and Monica Belluci in the more dispensable part as the commission's jaded top official – are aware the region's sex-slave industry involves not only the patronage but also complicity of peacekeepers, U.N. workers and members of the police task force. These guys have immunity from prosecution, as Bolkovac discovers.
The Whistleblower builds tension around whether Bolkovac's job is just for show or if her superiors, protecting their own jobs, hope this pro-active but naive outsider will indeed become a whistleblower.
From the movie's brisk first half-hour we know Bolkovac is motivated. Back home, her dedication to her job cost her two marriages. Her ex has custody of her young teen daughter and is moving her, along with his new family, to a different city. Bolkovac's applications for transfer have been turned down. "The money is good," she tells her daughter on the phone after accepting the gender office job.
Bolkovac struggles to stay in step with the local police and her former task-force colleagues. A latecomer to a raid on a local bar, Bolkovac learns that the girls being shoved into vehicles by police will be taken to a local shelter –"it's like a vacation" one of the cops says. But the girls never arrive.
Kondracki and co-writer Eilis Kirwan move Bolkovac's story forward in engaging procedural fashion, keeping the mood tense and murky, particularly in a haunting scene where Bolkovac is alone with a flashlight exploring the "cell" where the girls have been held. But there are also clunky bits of business and dialogue. In one scene, for instance, Bolkovac interviews a young sex slave and mentions how her own daughter was "taken away" and, so, "maybe I can change what happens to you"– Weisz's emotional performance hardly requires that connection to be stated so overtly.
While The Whistleblower mainly focuses on Bolkovac's frustrating and increasingly dangerous investigation, there is also a parallel subplot following the fate of two Ukrainian girls caught in the sex-slave ring Kathy targets. This storyline isn't dramatically satisfying, but it does provide context and ensures the victims in this story are not portrayed simply as faces in the dark.
Rachel Weisz won a best supporting actress Oscar for her role in The Constant Gardener (based on a John le Carre novel), playing an activist who is murdered for her investigation into a corporate pharmaceutical scandal in Africa. Her performance in The Whistleblower elevates her into the Oscar-worthy ranks of Norma Rae, Karen Silkwood and Erin Brockovich – a real-life crusader who steps outside her comfort zone to do the right thing, whatever the cost.
- Directed by Larysa Kondracki
- Screenplay by Eilis Kirwan and Larysa Kondracki
- Starring Rachel Weisz, David Strathairn, Vanessa Redgrave and Monica Bellucci
- The Whistleblower 14A
Special to The Globe and Mail.