Big Little Lies (2017) – A Compelling Domestic Drama Dressed Up as Murder/Mystery

HBO’s seven-episode mini-series Big Little Lies (2017) is set in the wealthy beachfront town of Monterey, California. The gorgeous natural atmosphere and the plush, huge homes overlooking the ocean seem to perfectly confirm to the na├»ve person’s idea of paradise. Similar to Mr. David Lynch’s camera that reveals swarm of insects underneath the neatly trimmed yard (in Blue Velvet), relentless abuse are lurking beneath the divine surface. Superbly written by Emmy-Award winning producer/writer David E Kelley, and deftly directed by Canadian-French film-maker Jean-Marc Vallee, Big Little Lies is an adaptation of Liane Moriarty’s novel of the same name, which is set in an affluent Australian small town. A little glance at the story line would definitely make us think that it’s totally unrelatable or it’s just another tale of desperate, white, and obscenely wealthy housewives. And, yes the majority of central characters here lead extravagant lives who possess the usual obnoxiousness of the privileged white. But Mr. Kelley and Mr. Vallee succeeds with Big Little Lies by penetrating through those layers of extravagance and obnoxious behavior to intimately look at their immense emotional burden. They surely are f***ed-up people, taking one wrong decision after another, yet the sensitive writing makes us empathize for these women. 

Big Little Lies is dressed up as a murder mystery, but at its best this is an incisive exploration of the emotional and physical abuse wreaked on women and children in a status-obsessed societal set-up that’s powered by toxic masculinity. When one throws in words like ‘toxic masculinity’ naturally a doubt arises whether the series is a stridently feminist tale, showcasing every male as monster dressed-up in suits. While the novel and series has strict idealistic intention, it thankfully never reduces any male or female characters into caricature. Irrespective of gender, people here make mistakes and act as annoying haranguers. The little over-stuffed first episode begins with a female detective arriving at the crime scene of a gruesome murder. The setting is gala party where all the affluent couples of the small town have attended. In the interrogation room assortment of gossiping characters unveil their stories and theories on the motive for murder. 

In the first episode listening to Greek chorus characters, we aren’t just hooked up to know about murderer’s identity. We are also more interested in knowing who the victim is. The story unfurls in flashback which revolves around five women. Reese Witherspoon plays fire-cracker Madeline Martha, mom to aloof teenager, a super-smart little girl, and wife to work-at-home computer engineer Ed (Adam Scott). Madeline is like the older version of Tracy Flick – played by Reese Witherspoon in Alexander Payne’s Election (1999): cute-looking as well as detestable. But, as the character grows in further episode we witness a vulnerability to her which makes us empathize with her plight. Madeline wages two battles in this particular phase of her life: one with city of Monterey over a shelved play; and the other with ex-husband Nathan (James Tupper) who is now married to angelic and disillusioned woman Bonnie (Zoe Kravitz). Nicole Kidman plays Celeste, a successful lawyer who had sacrificed her career to take care of twins and handsome husband Perry (Alexander Skarsgaard). Their beautiful faces and gorgeous mansion could make up for picture-perfect portrait of happy family life; except for the fact that, everything is decayed beneath this attractive surface. 

Jane Chapman (Shailene Woodley) is the new girl on the block. She is much younger than the other moms dropping their children at the renowned local public school. Jane is a single mom who hopes to start fresh life with son Ziggy and bestow him the best education possible. She quickly forms friendship with Madeline and Celeste, although Jane evidently becomes uncomfortable when their conversation moves to Ziggy’s father. Renata Klein (Laura Dern) is the most privileged among the five women (in the tale) which also makes her the most disliked person in the town. She lives with a very understanding husband and a charming little daughter Annabella. Renata routinely struggles between finding time for her daughter and to wage corporate boardroom wars. The central conflict of the story commences on the school orientation day when first-grader Annabella points to newcomer Ziggy as the bully who choked her in the classroom. Ziggy rejects the accusation, Jane believes her son, and Renata chastises both of them. This entire drama unfolds in front of the parents of other first-graders. Madeline who already bears a grudge for Renata takes over the conflict. Supported by Celeste, she makes sure it’s now Team Madeline vs Renata Klein. The bullying of Annabella doesn’t stop and it makes the rift between the mothers run deeper. Ziggy keeps on saying he is innocent, but even Jane has a slight doubt, especially after considering the nature of Ziggy’s biological father. Meanwhile, the brutish behavior of Celeste’s husband Perry reaches threshold point and Madeline’s unchecked hate for ex-husband Nathan’s family unearths fresh conflicts. From the perspective of other voyeuristic town residents, these families (central to the tale) harbored varieties of ill-feelings so as to settle it in murder. However, as we journey with these characters and understand their emotional pains, we are much tensed over learning who the victim is?   

Writer David E Kelley turns what seems to be the superficial elements into something profound. With every little conversation taking place inside simple four-wall set-ups, different layers float to the surface, provoking us to re-think our simple judgment of characters. The most fascination aspect of writing lies in exploring the complexities of power within couple, particularly in the fights between Perry and Celeste. Director Vallee doesn’t film these sequences in one unbroken shot, but rather showcases the gruesome violence in little doses, suddenly cutting into atmosphere of silence and cutting away to the unconquered ocean. May be the ocean is representation of the woman who unrelentingly flows over despite facing death knell. However, Perry (Celeste's husband) isn’t portrayed as a one-dimensional monster. He is very well aware about his inner demons and apart from the time he fails to conquer those demons, he behaves like a good husband & father. Gradually, he becomes annoyed over the peaceful routine, engages in argument, initiates a slap, to which Celseste reacts (with slap or shove) and the whole distasteful action culminates in fierce sex. Then he apologies and promises to continue the therapy. The writing in therapy scenes are equivalent to walking on a tightrope. Celeste wants to confide enough to the therapist to seek help without revealing too much about Perry’s behavior. The terrifyingly toxic marriage between Celeste and Perry also keeps us on the edge, thanks to incredible performances from Skarsgarrd and Kidman. Kidman who is UN Women Goodwill Ambassador (helping out female victims of domestic violence) plays one of the hardest and best role in her career. She doesn’t play as the quivering wife of a classic abuser. On one level, Kidman’s Celeste likes the high sexual energy that follows her husband’s wrath. Kidman turns Celeste into a gray character and embodies the feelings of terror in a way not usually shown in films or TV series. 

While Vallee and Kelly builds up Woodley’s character Jane as the central piece of the jig-saw puzzle (using flashbacks and unnerving dreams), the second-best character in the series is Witherspoon’s Madeline. She starts off with her usual charm and unyielding energy. However, Witherspoon is at her best when she brings her character’s vulnerability and anxieties to the surface. She’s both hilarious as well as exasperating without exaggerating any emotions. Although Laura Dern’s Renata has limited scenes, she perfectly amalgamates the character’s arrogance and insecurities. Zoe Kravitz’s Bonnie is the most under-written character of the series. Yet, we are able to scrutinize her character in a different light after the tense finale. Director Jean Marc Vallee explores the themes of loneliness and domestic abuse by funneling it through sub-genres of social satire and murder mystery. He brings perfect control over the tone, although the jarring sound & visual effects becomes too repetitive at times. Vallee excels far better at using silence to create uncomfortable, brooding atmosphere. Big Little Lies may not be the starkly realistic look at the lives of middle-aged white women. It has melodrama and contrived mysterious elements at its center which runs toward a neatly-packaged resolution. Yet, its greatest quality lies in depicting the full range of emotions of the female characters. They are allowed to be fallible and detestable without provoking the viewers’ need to judge them. In this Big-entertainment medium, where women aren’t allowed to make mistakes and often get punished for harboring sexual desires, there’s a lot of genuineness to appreciate in Big Little Lies. 



Trapped (2015- ) – An Engrossing Moody Crime Series Set in a Small Icelandi Town

Nordic Noir has become synonymous with dark meticulously crafted story-lines, unforgettable three-dimensional characters, and spellbinding realization of natural atmosphere. For more than a decade, morally complex crime fictions hailing from Scandinavian nations are kindling our reading appetite more and more. Swedish writers Maj Sjowall and Per Wahloo’s Martin Beck mystery series kicked off in 1965 and finished in 1975. The novels were adapted into multi-part TV series and numerous films. The authors take on social conflicts and characterization of detective protagonist later found its way into the Nordic Noir, where Swedish and Norwegian writers like Stieg Larsson (Millennium Trilogy), Henning Mankell (Wallender series), and Jo Nesbo (Harry Hole series) transcended premises of murder mystery into fascinating critique  on contemporary European society and western capitalism. The boundaries of Nordic Noir widened with the rise of mind-blowing TV series like The Bridge (Bron/Broen), Borgen, and The Killing (Forbrydelsen). Nordic Noir distinguishing trait is its ground-breaking characters (Katrine Fonsmark, Saga Noren, and Sarah Lund are memorable female characters in TV series ever), starkly realistic and precise setting, stripped off all the crowd-pleasing sub-plots often found in American or other crime fictions. While critics feel that end is in sight for Nordic Noir wave, the Scandinavian writers keep on surprising us every year.

Iceland was a bit left out from the international success enjoyed by TV series’ from other Nordic countries. Icelandic director Baltasar Kormakur (101 Reykjavik, Contraband, Everest) extinguished that feeling with his 10-part murder mystery series Trapped (2015- ). The series debuted in Europe last year (first Icelandic series to be released by BBC) and went on to become international hit (with at least one million Brits and 5 million French watching its 10 episodes). The huge success led to its renewal for 2nd season, set to be screened in 2018. Trapped perfectly confirms to the basic elements of Nordic Noir, attracting existing fans, and moreover Baltasar Kormakur and his team of talented writers bring their own unique sensibilities to keep things fresh.

Trapped has two central characters: one is burly, poker-faced police chief Andri Olafsson (Olafur Darri Olafsson) with small icicles clinging to his unkempt beard; and the other is bad weather assaulting the poetic landscape. The very first difference we notice between other small-town based TV series and Trapped is its punishing weather. The huge mounds of snow all around the town perfectly sets up the trap for its characters – physically and psychologically. Furthermore, watching it in this hot weather I even felt a little chill, while consuming the images of beautiful yet brutal landscape. The story is set in Siglufjordur, a breathtakingly scenic little fishing town, north of Iceland’s capital Reykjavik. The people of the town have to wear heavy layers of outfit before driving or walking through the blizzard to their offices, schools or boat yards. All is definitely not well for protagonist Andri when the 1st episode begins. He is chief of police in a town, where everyone knows each other, and possibly the day-to-day duty might involve writing some parking tickets. They can cozily sit in the station with their flasks and play a game of chess. But, Andri’s marriage life is in shambles.

Andri’s house is being renovated and he is staying at his in-law’s house with two children (Perla and Thorhildur). However, Andri’s wife Agnes has requested for divorce and on that particular day she is arriving from Reykjavik with her boyfriend Sigvaldi. For the man who is still hopefully wearing his wedding ring this is very disappointing news. But Andri doesn’t show much on his face. He boards up (or traps up) all the emotional pains inside his giant physical stature. Agnes’ family home has few remainders of her dead younger sister Dagny. The episode opens with Dagny and her boyfriend Hjortur riding to an old factory for an intense session of sex. Later, Dagny is killed in a fire, whose source remains mysterious, and Hjortur survives with few burns. Meanwhile, a ferry from Denmark is arriving over the fjord. At the same time, a mangled human torso is caught in a fisherman’s nest. Andri inspects the torso in a perfect, clinical manner as if he has done it many times. Indeed, he has worked in Reykjavik and transferred to the town for reasons unknown (transferred here after the death of Dagny). Andri may have even felt a little relief for having a murder case to solve; a weird distraction from the burgeoning existential crisis.

As the Danish ferry reaches its destination the weather turns for the worst. Soon, everyone from the town’ Mayor to school children hears about the mutilated corpse. Since the corpse looks fresh and pulled from the water, the suspicion naturally falls on the members of ferry. Andri and his two subordinates (Asgeir and Hinrika) begin their investigation on the ferry. Moreover, the roads are slowly closing down due to the impending snow storm. The forensic team and higher police officials from Reykjavik couldn’t fly in. So, the townsfolk and people in the boat are trapped (including the murderer). It’s pretty much like Agatha Christie’s Ten Little Indians situation, set in a bit wider societal canvas. We are then introduced to the town’s different colorful characters, who either inhabit the powerful or oppressed status. It now falls on Andri and his two less-experienced police officers to solve the murder case, whose list of suspects even include the Eastern European human-trafficking mafia. Before long, bodies start to pile up as the three-member police team try to get a hold over the twists and turns.

There are some unique Icelandic elements in Trapped that sets it apart from the other crime series from Norway, Sweden or Denmark. One is the formidable presence of nature, which literally dictates the narrative course. The other is found in its constant reference to 2008 Icelandic financial crisis. Although Iceland’s recovery from the economic collapse is portrayed as one of the modern miraculous story (something to learn for other countries hit by financial crisis), Trapped looks at the grass-root level impact of the crisis; on how it provoked people to use unlawful means to rejuvenate the town’s economy. The Mayor Hrafn and Reykjavik politician strives hard to coerce the locals for signing the deal with China in order to turn their sleepy town into a major port city. As we often saw in monochromatic film noir from old Hollywood, there will be crime when wealthy men with big ambitions try to realize their plan through whatever means. The frigid social and natural atmosphere in the small town perfectly elevates the noir elements and allows room for organic twists.

There are definitely some hiccups and repetitions in the narrative. The whole episode involving the Danish captain looks contrived and melodramatic. Some characters work as mere narrative device (may be there will fully evolve in the next season). The mystery looks a bit thin which could have been fully realized within eight episodes. Nevertheless, I didn’t mind watching 10 episodes (and wouldn’t have if it’s extended for another episode) especially for the atmosphere which may be exasperating to live in reality, but provides a very immersive visual experience. Olafsson's majestic presence is yet another reason to overlook the minor, understandable flaws.  I also particularly liked the elegant unraveling of the murderer identity. While usually we feel relief when the killer’s identity is unmasked, we only feel a little sad here. Like the gruesome murders, the actions that led the person to commit murder remain sorrowful. Finally, staying true to Nordic crime fictions, Trapped doesn’t give up its bleakness or ineradicable emotional wounds for an impossible happy ending. Andri’s plight kind of makes you to chastise the person who first said, ‘truth sets you free’. The release of truth here only deepens the void. As Andri walks away emotionless in the last frame of the last episode there isn’t much hope. Nevertheless, this dark Icelandic tale bestows fine comfort to briefly overlook our own existential quandaries. 


Trapped (2015- ) is blessed with a fabulous natural environment, richly detailed characters, and an absorbing mystery at its center. It’s a must watch for the fans of Nordic crime tales. 

Goldstone [2016] – A Procedural with Idealistic Intentions

Australian writer/director Ivan Sen’s Goldstone (2016) revolves around indigenous detective Jay Swan (Aaron Pedersen), who earlier busted a drug network, putrefying the aboriginal community, in the mystery/thriller Mystery Road (2013). Jay Swan is a character brimming with existential angst. He is not trusted by the white law officials and always seen with a little suspicion by impoverished Aborigines. Like many men in the indigenous community, Jay’s father too succumbed to alcoholism and lost his life. In the sequel Goldstone, the void has only deepened as the protagonist detective stays in inebriated state after the loss of his teenage daughter. When we first see Jay he is rolling into an isolated mining outpost town (the one in the title) in his old truck and stopped by a local policeman Josh Waters (Alex Russell). Josh thinks of Jay as just another drunk wanderer of Aborigine community and places him on a lockup to dry out. He looks into the drunken guy’s bag to discover the detective medal. Josh reports this to pie-baking motherly mayor Maureen (a brilliant Jackie Weaver). Although Jay looks lost there is a purpose for his visit to this parched mining town: to track down the whereabouts of a missing, young Chinese girl who was last seen in the town’s outskirts.

Ivan Sen opens Goldstone with old pictures of multi-cultural workers and their rich white masters, taken during the 1800’s Gold rush in Southern New South Wales. At least 7000 Chinese were believed to have worked in the NSW gold fields. The old pictures speak of the socioeconomic oppression and shows how little have changed in these areas. The gallery exhibition in the opening credits ends up with the photo of young Chinese girls – may be prostitutes brought in to serve the workers. The ruthless Caucasian master of yesteryear is replaced by a mining company and a gentlemanly manager Johnny (David Wenham). Jay receives the same kind of treatment Spencer Tracy’s character received in “Bad Day at Black Rock” (1955). As a stranger in town, he is offered tea and pies, but gently warned off to not stir up the hornet’s nest. Jay, who is not so desirous to hold onto his life, knows that all the roads lead to ‘Furnace Creek’ mining company (literally and symbolically). So he starts off his investigation there by trespassing into the company’s property, and in return he faces crew of heavies, equipped with state-of-the-art assault rifles.

It is customary for Johnny to offer bribery to fend off opposition for his plans of development. The company has called up for an expansion, which may lead to the eviction of indigenous people. And, to expand they need the consent of ‘black fellas’. That’s no problem since the local chairman of the land council Tommy (Tommy Lewis) is on the take. The rest of the small Aborigine community is wasted on grog (rum cut with water) or on drugs. Wise, senior figures of the community like Jimmy (David Gulpill) is left on their own. The teen Aborigines are so depressed to choose suicide as the only way out. To say in few words, the Aborigines are still caught up in the whirlpool of Australia’s colonial past. A visit to this impoverished community makes Jay to learn some truth about his past. He easily pieces out the debauched connection between the powerful people, but the vital piece of the puzzle are the beautiful pan-Asian girls, who are flown in (without consent) to service the mine workers (to pay off their burgeoning debt). Young white Australian Josh is a morally grey character whose stern stance may benefit Jay’s mission.

Director Ivan Sen says that he wants to pass on his socially conscious themes in an ‘artistic but digestible way’. He started off his career with neo-realist tales and documentaries (“Beneath Clouds”, “Toomelah”) and made the transformation to script gritty tale Mystery Road, which in terms of structure resembles film-noir genre. The simple set-up of the location reminds us of old westerns: a town with one policeman; a one-man pub, gang of hoods, etc. Sen continues his cutting critique on Australian society by referencing the themes like teen Aborigine suicide, chronic alcoholism, etc. Dangerous wild dogs are once again mentioned (as it was in Mystery Road) although we don’t see the creatures or its spoils. The wild dogs, I think, represent some kind of metaphysical menace confronted by Jay. The script adds more metaphorical weight when Jimmy, the spiritual guide, takes Jay through Aborigine lands (to see ancient cave paintings) to suggest about whom the land is going to evict. After considering the complaints of confusion regarding Mystery Road’s story-line (especially the ending), Sen might have chosen a pretty clear plot and characterizations. Nevertheless, the structure is wafer thin to justify the running time.

There’s nothing wrong with a robust slow-burn thriller and noirs could be engaging even when we can’t fully figure out what’s happening (eg, “Inherent Vice” or the masterpiece “The Big Sleep”). Goldstone doesn’t belong to neither of these categories. The dialogues aren’t subtle and the characters aren’t strong enough to substitute the lack of mystery. Wenham and Jackie Weaver elevate their caricatured villain characters through their wonderful performances. There are quite a few inorganic scenes to insist on the film’s themes or to deliver information. The brothel madame’s bleak advice to the young Chinese girl, and Jay’s encounter with prostitute ‘Pinky’ (operating out of a mobile brothel) are some examples of the inorganic narrative beats. These prolonged scenes and recurring motifs rather than adding weight to the structure only turns it into a tiring experience. Of course, there are few well-written scenes. My favorites are the encounter between Chinese girl (Michelle Lim Davidson) and Josh. They both strive to save themselves by trusting each other (and their acquaintance is not romanticized). Eventually, what makes Goldstone a watchable movie (if not one of the good Australian flick) is the technical prowess of director, editor, cinematographer and musical composer Ivan Sen. He shows an amazing restraint in direction, which lacks a bit in his scripts.

Sen’s frames find the seam of rich emotions lying beneath the placid face of Aborigines and thoughtfully exhibits what it is like to live on the fringes of a community. When Johnny promises jobs & economical improvement for the indigenous community (during the meeting to make the Aborigines sign off their lands) Sen observes the community’s children jumping on a giant inflatable slide and adults with disconnected gaze (succumbed to grog). The way Sen relates to & visualizes the indigenous experience (their land rights issues) brings excellent vibrancy to the narrative. Director Sen seems to love aerial shots and close-ups. His steady pace lends magnetic force to both these oft-repeated shots. Among all the expert visual constructions, the one indelible aspect of Sen’s film are the shoot-outs. The impressively shot action scenes in Goldstone are tauter than the ones in “Mystery Road”. The final shoot-out that unfurls in between the mazes of camper vans was brilliantly visualized. There’s ample pause and silence in his action scenes rather than imagining it as a bullet-fest. Aaron Pedersen once again delivers a brooding performance as Jay. Pedersen impeccably showcases the frustration of being part of the establishment and part of the indigenous world. His demeanor and some of his mannerisms remind us of the famous fictional gumshoe Philip Marlowe.  



Goldstone (110 minutes) was an expertly filmed and performed outback noir with sharp & relevant social commentary (human trafficking, cultural destruction and corporate corruption). Although the writing is not so intriguing, the creative pursuit to expose the mistreatment of marginalized people delivers a fine impact. 



Afterimage [2016] – A Fitting Tribute to a Defiant Polish Artist

Acclaimed Polish film-maker Andrzej Wajda’s final film Afterimage (Powidoki, 2016 -- Wajda died last October at the age of 90) captures the struggles faced by Polish avant-garde painter Wladyslaw Strzeminski (1893-1952) – marvelously played by Polish star Boguslaw Linda – during the last years of his life. Born in Minsk, graduated in St. Petersburg, Strzeminiski lost a leg and arm in WWI. He later attended state workshops in Moscow and got associated with great avant-garde artists like Chagall and Malevich. During the early 1920s he moved to Warsaw and developed his theory of Unism. Post World War II, he became an instructor at Higher School of Visual Arts in Lodz (a city in Central Poland). Adored by students and faculties, Strzeminiski evolved into a fine theoretician and art historian. He also developed the ‘Neoplastic room’ in 1946, a unique exhibition space for showcasing the collection of avant-garde arts, built inside Lodz’ Museum Sztuki. However, the postwar Stalinist ideologies soon snuffed out the space for abstract arts. While many artists succumbed to the Party’s populist demands, Strzeminiski refused to compromise his artistic standards or views. For nearly two decades, director Wajda pondered over making this biopic. Initially, Wajda wanted to focus on the troubled relationship between Strzeminiski and his wife/famous Polish sculptor Katarzyna Kobro. Instead, he used a classical narrative structure to make a quietly brooding drama on the isolated yet defiant last days of Strzeminiski’s life.

Andrzej Wajda is one of the few directors who can employ allegory as a powerful tool, which is pretty evident in an earlier scene in Afterimage when Strzeminiski sits down to paint in his flat. A huge red banner bearing the visage of grim-faced Stalin is hoisted over the apartment building, coloring the walls and the empty canvas in bright red. Unable to paint, Strzeminski uses one of his crutches to tear a potion of the fabric to let in some light, which makes the lawmen to barge in and carry him to police headquarters. The giant red banner becomes a symbol for the loss of individuality (or a symbol of oppression). The film opens in 1948 and chronicles the mandate imposed by Cultural Ministry to only uphold arts related to ‘Socialist realism’. As a bureaucrat says, “in these times, we have only one choice”. Art that lacks strict ideology is considered to be an art hostile to socialist ideologies. The bald-headed despot minister doesn’t have the time or mind to appreciate abstract arts or champion individualism. Strezminiski openly denounces minister’s views that ‘art should have a clear political message’.

Strezminiski refusal to work within bureaucratic ranks strips him of his position at the university. He loses his gallery at the museum, and even dismissed from the artists association. Unable to find job anywhere within the system, Strzeminiski reels in poverty and faces humiliation everywhere he turns. He finds solace in the visits of his loyal students (among the students young Hania is infatuated with Strzeminiski), who are helping him to finish the radical work ‘Theory of Vision’. Apart from the students, Strzeminiski is cared by his smart, tough teenage daughter Nika (Bronislawa  Zamachowska). But his situation doesn’t get any better. He is reduced to painting large banners of Stalin to survive, and in turn for the worse, Strzeminiski is even denied the right to purchase paints. Furthermore, the onset of tuberculosis hacks away the little physical strength left within him.

Afterimage may not be one of the greatest works in Wajda’s extensive body of work. Nevertheless, it is a poignant study of a quietly rebellious artist trying to preserve his artistic integrity, in the face of oppressive doctrines. The script developed by Andrzej Mularczyk (based on Wajda’s idea) is totally devoid of hagiography notions. It was good decision to only refer to Strzeminiski’s difficult relationship with his ex-wife or his former acclaimed position rather than explain everything in detail. With his minimalist directorial approach, Wajda doesn’t shies away from depicting the harshness of Strzeminski’s physical and existential isolation. He doesn’t allow the artist to deliver loud proclamations or express the injustices done to him. Wajda even audaciously captures Strzeminiski’s graceless moments: for eg, the moment when the hungry artist licks the few drops of soup in empty plate, or showcasing his plight of drawing very large Stalin banners which earlier set off all the modes of oppression. Strzeminiski didn’t denunciate his choice of artistic expression to gain food-stamps and steady job. But at the same time, he wasn’t too prideful to deny all the essentials to survive. Director Wajda’s intention isn’t to capture the avant-garde artist’s glory. By focusing on the isolation and disintegration of the true artist, Wajda explores the ceding position of alleged intellectuals in the rise of populism or extreme nationalism. It is also interesting to note how totalitarian governments sought out arts with propagandist purposes to exploit citizen’s goodwill.

The movie title represents the shapes that linger in our eyes after it has been exposed to an image. Wajda’s recollection of Strzeminiski’s final days seems to be well-crafted afterimage of the old Poland (governed by brutal and foolish authorities). Although the systematic annihilation of Strzeminiski’s art and individualism looks relentlessly bleak, Wajda does find some hope, if not positive signs, in the young characters. The character of Strzeminski’s emancipated daughter Nika is wonderfully performed and well-written. Her sense of self survives despite the invasive doctrines. The quiet desperation as well as unbridled love between the father and daughter is also portrayed in a nuanced manner. Boguslaw Linda (Blind Chance, Psy, Man of Iron, etc) incredible acting style and physiognomy impeccably conveys depths of the artist’s anguish. He avoids sentimentality and didacticism to unwaveringly play out Strzeminiski’s misfortunes. Linda even elevates the narrative above its slightly monotonous tone (particularly in the later half). 


Afterimage (98 minutes) is a quiet, non-sentimental reflection on a famous Polish avant-garde artist’s struggles against Stalinist dogmas. The story of Wladyslaw Strzeminski is the perfect farewell subject matter for veteran film-maker Andrzej Wajda, whose art is often marked by individuals’ bold resistance against cruel establishment.