Binge-r #116: 1983 + Shirkers
Streaming Service: Netflix
Availability: All eight episodes now streaming
It’s not surprising that alternate reality and parallel world thrillers have been so prominent over the last few years – fictional what if moments are a way of either examining or avoiding crucial real life events; if Donald Trump’s election still haunts you, here are some invented worlds that are equally unexpected. But after the debut of the bracing Counterpart on SBS on Demand [full review here], and with Amazon’s Hitler-won-World-War-Two series The Man in the High Castle [full review here] three seasons in, Netflix’s Polish take on the genre, 1983, doesn’t quite meet expectations.
Deep breath for the set-up: in 1983 Poland a series of simultaneous bombings, blamed on pro-democracy groups such as the Solidarity movement, both horrify and galvanise the country. In 2003 Poland remains under Communist Party rule (with the Iron Curtain still intact) with the country having taken a great leap forward in terms of wealth, unity, and technology. Warsaw has the gleaming lines and sleek public buildings of a Scandinavian nation. The events of March 12 are a national touchstone, which is why the young law student, Kajetan (Maciej Musial), nudged towards investigating the bombings by his mentor, a former judge, is such an apt figure: both his parents died in the attacks, and the image of his childhood mourning has become a nationally known photograph.
Alternate reality stories are obviously wild inventions, but they still have to adhere to the logic that stems from the timeline’s flicker. Unfortunately 1983 doesn’t always add up – the Soviet-controlled nations in Europe’s east were stagnant and repressed, their collapse was inevitable. That’s why the plot’s pieces, including an embittered police detective, Anatol (Robert Wieckiewicz) tugging at loose strings alongside Kajetan, and a young revolutionary leader, Ofelia (Michalina Olszanska), never truly cohere into a geopolitical whole that draws you in. Some of the gambits, such as a close relationship with Communist Vietnam that has resulted in mass emigration, appear to have been invented solely to allow for Vietnamese gangsters based in ‘Little Saigon’.
The score’s spectral synths and the tug of buried reality give the early episodes the kind of tingle that the genre excels at, while the hardboiled direction from the likes of veteran Polish filmmaker Agnieszka Holland is solid, but previously uncredited series creator Joshua Long simply doesn’t have a feel for Poland. His fictional version is on a different axis, but that doesn’t mean there can’t be a sense of humour, cuisine, and demeanour that has carried through the decade’s deviation. I am always down for this kind of story, but the mysteries that underpin 1983 are more curious than gripping. If you haven’t watched Counterpart and The Man in the High Castle, which both have richer themes at work, start with them. If you have watched them, this is a consolation prize. Not every what if needs an answer.
>> Other Reading: If you have access to Foxtel, The Little Drummer Girl is essential. The Korean filmmaker Park Chan-wook (Oldboy) takes a period John le Carre espionage thriller and gives it a visual breadth and disquieting focus on performance and deception. I wrote about the limited series for The Monthly [full review here].
NEWLY ADDED MOVIES
Shirkers (Netflix, 2018, 97 minutes): A memoir documentary, a detective story, and a reminder that to turn out right we sometimes have to go wrong, Shirkers begins as the story of Sandi Tan’s adolescence in Singapore. With her best friends Jasmine Ng and Sophie Siddique she dived into alternative DIY culture, eventually as a university student in the summer of 1992 writing and starring in a microbudget independent movie – also titled Shirkers – that was directed by her mentor, an older American film teacher named Georges Cardona, whose support came with a level of control. The tone is dreamy, the sequences strewn with idiosyncrasies, but while Cardona is a suspect figure what he ultimately took from Tan is the production’s 70 cans of 16mm footage. The theft echoes through Tan’s life, which she documents with intimate commentary and the sometimes condemnatory recollections of her friends and collaborators. Creativity is a source of wonder and sometimes a threat here, and it’s only when Tan recovers the archive after many years that she’s able to reckon with both her past and herself. The second Shirkers is very different than the first would have been, but it is worth the wait.
New on Netflix: Viggo Mortensen gives defining depth to a father who has raised his children off the grid, leading to conflicts between freedom and control in the comic drama Captain Fantastic (2016, 119 minutes); Winchester (2018, 99 minutes) is a period haunted house horror from Australian genre filmmakers the Spierig brothers that makes noise but not the most of Helen Mirren, Jason Clarkes, and Sarah Snook.
New on SBS on Demand: A Patricia Highsmith adaptation set amongst visitors to 1960s Greece, The Two Faces of January (2014, 93 minutes) stars Oscar Isaac, Kirsten Dunst, and Viggo Mortensen as suggestive adversaries; The Tree of Life (2013, 133 minutes) is one of Terrence Malick’s finest films, a metaphysical quest told through present day disquiet and the gilded memories of childhood starring Brad Pitt, Jessica Chastain, and Sean Penn.
New on Stan: Todd Haynes’ Carol (2014, 114 minutes), with Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara as lovers drawn together in stifling 1950s America, is one of the essential screen romances of this century; the teen drama gets a heroine who thankfully can’t hide her failings and the emotional difficulties of her age in The Edge of Seventeen (2016, 105 minutes), with a heartfelt lead performance from Hailee Steinfeld.
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