Film Review: The Whistleblower

Solid political drama inspired by actual recent events in Eastern Europe gives us a slightly miscast Rachel Weisz as a working-class Nebraska cop turned U.N. law-enforcement monitor in Bosnia, where she discovers horrible human-rights abuses.

The Whistleblower, which marks filmmaker Larysa Kondracki’s impressive film debut, is an ambitious Canada/Germany co-production, as its laundry list of production and financing entities suggests. But the expansive effort pays off in a dead-serious, narrowly focused examination of sex trafficking—the methods, the cover-ups, the unexpected complicities.

Like the equally ambitious and politically fraught Hotel Rwanda, The Whistleblower eschews light escapist touches to deliver a hard-hitting message of man’s inhumanity writ large. All in all, here’s another well-told but troubling story impressively wrapped for audiences who show up in theatres for do-good cinema of a high order.

Kicking off in 1999, the film shows thugs tricking young Ukrainian women, including Raya (Roxana Condurache), into taking jobs abroad that will never happen so they can be ensnared into working as sex slaves. Meanwhile, Kathryn Bolkovac (Rachel Weisz), a twice-divorced Lincoln, Nebraska police investigator who needs to earn more money to take back custody of her daughter, jumps for a short-term, well-paying job in post-war Sarajevo in Bosnia to work with the U.N. as a human-rights investigator on its international peacekeeping force.

Once there, she begins an affair with U.N. colleague Jan (Nikolaj Lie Kaas), a likeable Dutch guy in a failing marriage. But the inchoate romance takes a back seat as Kathryn, with expectations of helping a devastated country rebuild, gets deeper into her new job. Idealism recedes when she encounters the enslaved Ukrainian girls who were hoodwinked into thinking better jobs awaited them abroad. Kathryn is shocked to see how they are housed: in filthy, cramped, mattress-strewn backroom quarters of Sarajevo’s Florida Bar, where they work as sex slaves to “repay” their abductors.

Kathryn’s calls for help at the U.N. and local law enforcement go unanswered. She alerts authorities to get the girls to a shelter, but they take no action because many are bar customers. Revelations of further corruption, cover-ups and human-rights abuses follow. Macho U.N. cop Fred Murray (David Hewlett), for instance, does nothing, as he is taking payoffs from the brothels and has diplomatic immunity to ease his paranoia. An even bigger U.N. cheese, Bill Hynes (Liam Cunningham) will be implicated and may or may not get his just desserts. A human-rights operative on Kathryn’s side, Laura (the talented Monica Bellucci), unfortunately figures less prominently.

When Kathryn presses the U.N. for help in stanching these abuses, she is advised to take a paid leave from her job. Sympathetic human-rights colleague Madeleine Rees (Vanessa Redgrave, in a small role) provides moral, if not pragmatic, support. After menacing calls follow, Kathryn learns from U.N. colleague Peter Ward (David Strathairn) that Internal Affairs is closing down her cases. Kathryn is soon banned from her offices, but Peter helps her break back in to steal her incriminating records.

The performances, especially that of Condurache as the main victim, are all top-notch, although the slightly starchy Weisz (like Natalie Portman) can’t completely shake her refinement. (More dirt was needed under her character’s working-class fingernails.)
Although dealing with lots of characters and plot details, this largely female production impresses and is well-served by the location shooting primarily in Romania, in other Eastern Europe areas, and in Toronto for the U.N. building scenes.