Kinoteka - Polish Film Festival London review: A Woman Alone

Directed by Agnieszka Holland

Poland 1981| 91 min| Digital | With English subtitles

Playing Kinoteka: Polish Film Festival in London 2016

RATING: ★★★★☆

Polish director Agnieszka Holland’s 1981 film A Woman Alone is back in cinemas this month, playing as part of the annual Kinoteka Polish Film Festival in London. The film has been digitally restored by Di Factory with the support of the Polish Film Institute. This restoration has added approximately five minutes of material which had previously been removed by censorship. This was possible thanks to Polish Television and the Polish National Digital Archives where the original pieces of film were stored in a very good conditions. Di Factory was able to scan these pieces of negative in 4K and then restore them. London’s BFI screening in April was the first time that the restored version was publicly screened.

As for the film itself, Holland’s movie remains a powerful piece of work, even more so when considered in the context of its creation. Banned in cinemas when martial law was proclaimed in Poland, this film gathered its reputation through clandestine screenings. The plot centres on a middle-aged working class woman, Irena, living alone on the outskirts of Wroclaw with her 8-year old son. Irena’s arc in this grim film is largely one of misfortune, misery and desperation, all laid out for us in unsparing detail, with Holland’s camera capturing the minutiae of life in the lower income bracket in a state crumbling under inept Communist rule. Irena lives in a drab apartment by a clatteringly noisy rail line, seemingly at the mercy of a thuggish landlord next door who wants her gone and rips her flat’s fuses out when he feels like it. She and her son wash in a tin tub. Their food looks dismal: hunks of bread and butter and study jam. They have to share a bed, with rooms separated by dank curtains.

Outside this tiny apartment, Irena gets no respite either. She is a mail carrier reliant on keeping her good route to stay afloat, a route coveted by other staff at her postal office. In between shifts she has to care for a sick relative who has seemingly been left at home to die of some unspecified illness: presumably cancer (leading to one disturbing monologue where the woman rants to Irene at how meaningless her life was, a moment of utter hopelessness). Irena starts a desperate love affair with a younger disabled man, Jacek, who earns his keep by using his disability card to queue jump for impatient and needy citizens who offer him a cut of the cost. But Jacek is needy and a heavy drinker, soon dishing out the same kind of abuse to her as her previous husband did, who himself wanders occasionsaly in and out of her life.

Though unrelentingly grim to an almost absurd degree, Holland’s film captures the stark reality of being a woman at risk of sexism and violence in everyday existence (a sadly universal story), a situation made worse by the conservative nature of Polish society around her and the crumbling nature of the state. In fact Holland’s film - and this is maybe where it got into hot water - seems to suggest a link between the failing and corrupt imposed Communist regime and Irena’s specific misery. As she trudges downcast around the city, we see queues outside cake stores and pharmacies: here things citizens of the free west would take for granted as mere minor items on a shopping list require hours of waiting. Conversations between family members and friends reveal the hypocrisy of an ‘equal’ system where people expect the ruling party to do favours for its members and allow queue jumping in social provision. Even chocolate is rationed. Jacek rages about a lack of hope and aspiration in this country, and despicable though he is, you can understand what he is talking about. Even the film’s cinematography seems to agree with him: everything seems overcast and grey, lifeless. In a country without hope is it any wonder people turn violent and petty?

Maria Chwalibóg gives a tour de force performance as the postwoman whose deeply frustrating life means we totally understand the moments where she just screams or runs, or both, though Holland never makes her entirely a Mother Theresa figure. Her role in making this film a powerful condemnation of a society without hope of help is key.

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Owen Van Spall

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