Review – ‘Cold War’ manages an epic feel in just 88 minutes

Poster for 2018 epic drama Cold War

Genre: Drama
Certificate: 15
UK Release Date: 31st August 2018
Runtime: 88 minutes
Director: Paweł Pawlikowski
Writer: Paweł Pawlikowski, Janusz Głowacki
Starring: Joanna Kulig, Tomasz Kot, Agata Kulesza, Borys Szyc, Jeanne Balibar, Cédric Kahn
Synopsis: A young woman and a pianist form a relationship when music thrusts them together, only for politics and ideology to force turbulent conflict into their relationship.



Paweł Pawlikowski‘s follow-up to his Oscar-winning Ida is yet another exploration of his Polish homeland, with music and romance at its heart. Cold War is set at a time in which political change is in the air, just a few years after the Second World War came to an end. Pawlikowski weaponises that sense of change and unpredictability to create an elegant and engrossing drama, populated by characters struggling to find their place in this new world and grappling with the notion that their lives may not be entirely their own.

In the wake of years of occupation, the Polish state is keen to re-establish sovereignty. As part of this drive, they are seeking a troupe of authentic working class youngsters to sing and dance to traditional folk songs. In charge of the audition process are producer Irena (Agata Kulesza) and Wiktor (Tomasz Kot) – a composer and pianist. Wiktor immediately takes a shine to fiercely independent singer Zula (Joanna Kulig) and they begin an initially tentative relationship. As the years pass, the troupe is increasingly manipulated as a propaganda tool, causing ideological differences to challenge the couple.

Cold War is dealing with an enormous, decade-plus time period of narrative and a complex relationship pushed apart by politics. That’s epic stuff, but few filmmakers understand economy of storytelling like Pawlikowski, and he is able to condense the plot without ever losing the potency of the emotion or the epic sense of scope. He’s aided by Łukasz Żal’s lavish black-and-white cinematography, as well as the stylistic choice of a boxy Academy ratio, coding characters as small in a frame with loads of clear space above them, as if they’re insignificant in relation to the political aims they are forced to serve. Pawlikowski’s story unfolds as an episodic series of flashes, as if these are half-remembered recollections being recounted by the characters decades later, like a forgotten period in their lives.

The connective tissue between the episodes, moreso than politics or characters, is music. The raw power of a good song runs throughout the entirety of Cold War, used in earnest and passionate fashion in the first act, only to be poisoned by the aims of the Establishment as the story moves into its middle section. A scene in the movie’s second half, in which characters dance with unbridled joy to ‘Rock Around the Clock’ while drunk amounts to nothing short of a recalibrating epiphany – music is raw and fun again.

Raw and fun more or less sums up the ethos of Joanna Kulig’s wannabe star, who is quietly anti-establishment – with a few violent skeletons in her closet – and immediately attractive to Kot’s character. Pawlikowski allows these two performances to tell the story of his time jumps, communicating a micro story that illuminates the macro one. There are flashes of The Barefoot Contessa and The Artist in its storytelling and the movie does boast a tone that plays as a darker take on Old Hollywood. It’s elegant, economical and absolutely epic.

Pop or Poop?

Rating: Pop!

Paweł Pawlikowski’s new film is a remarkable feat of storytelling, conveying more in terms of character in 90 minutes than most filmmakers can in two hours. Joanna Kulig and Tomasz Kot are terrific in a movie that spotlights the power of music and its importance in terms of the personal and the political. It doesn’t quite pack the emotional punch it needs to be a true masterpiece, but it’s a titanic achievement that marks Pawlikowski out as a truly exciting auteur.


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