Film Review: Burning Bush

Don't be daunted by its length—this historically rooted poetical thriller based on the events of the Prague Spring has a rare intelligence and drive that make the hours fairly fly by.

Burning Bush gets off to a literally fiery start when Czech student Jan Palach immolates himself in 1969 to protest the Soviet military occupation of his country. Developing from this horrific, politically charged incident, Agniezska Holland's four-hour, HBO Europe-produced miniseries is a gripping political thriller, whose roots in real-life history bestow a rare authenticity and depth upon it.

Holland focuses on police detective Jires (Ivan Trojan), who finds himself embroiled in trying to prevent any would-be copycats of Palach's action, and somehow mediate between government authorities and the furious demands of protesting students, sick of Russian control over their lives, as Palach struggles for life in the hospital. When he does die, the Communists libel him as a confused puppet of enemy forces and the film becomes an intense courtroom drama wherein lawyer Dagmar Buresova (Tatiana Pauhofova) represents his interests and those of his family, including his grieving mother (Jaroslava Pokorna). Palach's supporters and family become the targets of threats and blackmail, but Buresova staunchly carries on, with positive results, due to the overwhelmingly public support for Palach and what he stood for.

Maintaining a fierce grip on her storyline, Holland does the most effective work of her career here, doubtlessly honed from her strong involvement with “The Wire” and “Treme,” while investing what could be initially a dry police procedural and then trial with a deeply human understanding of character. Although lengthy, this series makes a smooth transition to cinema screens, via her involving and probingly intelligent direction of Stepan Hulik's economical, propulsive script. The entire cast performs with jaw-dropping conviction and empathy, with the embattled, ambivalent Trojan a standout, while Pokorna tastefully chews the scenery in her maternal distress.

Handsomely photographed in darkish tones befitting the grim subject which nonetheless capture the ancient beauty of Prague, fluidly edited and effectively served by Antoni Komasa-Lazarkarkiewicz's stirring music score, Burning Bush is truly the anti-“Law and Order” for fans of well-wrought, non-groan-inducing thrillers.

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