Walesa – Man of Hope (Walesa. Czlowiek z nadziei)

Poland (2013) Dir. Andrzej Wajda

Bio-pics are a tricky thing to get right since one has to serve many masters. If the subject is still living then obviously they’d want to be portrayed in a particular (read: flattering) light. Then there are the facts which will always be subject to scrutiny especially if twisted to suit whichever narrative the director is going for. This is what certain members of the audience will be hanging on and will shout the loudest against any noticeable errors, omissions or mendacious liberties taken with the truth.

At 88 years old, veteran Polish director Andrzej Wajda should already be aware of this when presenting his glossily shot essay of Lech Walesa, the Nobel Peace Prize winner who took on the Soviet order ruling Poland and created the first independent trade union of the Soviet Bloc.

Said to be the unofficial third part to a trilogy which began in 1977 with Man Of Marble and it’s sequel Man Of Iron, the key difference here is that the previous two films were purely fictional accounts based on the same theme, while this is a fact based dramatisation.

Wajda said he wanted to present Walesa in a different light but accusations have been made of Wajda only telling half the story. As a neophyte to Walesa’s tale I cannot say what is true or not, but the story presented to us here is of a working class man who stood up against the Communist regime for the rights of his fellow man in order to get a better deal on working conditions and basic human rights.

Robert Więckiewicz takes the lead role as Lech Wałęsa, whom we first meet in the 1980’s being interviewed by famed Italian political journalist Oriana Fallaci (Maria Rosaria Omaggio) during which the story of his rise to national and international recognition is recalled in flashback. It begins in 1970 when Walesa was an electrician working at the Gdansk shipyards when a riot broke out.

Walesa tried to prevent the rioters from violent action but was arrested at the scene only to be released when his story was backed up. But before going he was forced into signing some papers with the safety of his then pregnant wife Danuta, (Agnieszka Grochowska) and their kids being used as bargaining leverage.

Skip forward a few years and Walesa has been fired by the shipyard for being troublemaker but his reputation as a straight talker has spread, with current shipyard workers calling on him to help instigate a peaceful strike. It works and Walesa is inspired to found the Solidarity movement and became a regular thorn in the side of the Communist authority, often being arrested for trifling reasons.

However hints are dropped about a secret relationship with the authorities, but this isn’t fully explored, perhaps as it conflicts the glowing tone of the film.

As if to illustrate Wadja’s clear admiration for Walesa, there is a scene where the election of Pope John Paul II, himself Polish, to the role of Pontiff which coincided with Walesa’s ascending public stature and state union leader. These two incidents may have coincidentally paralleled each other in real life but in this context it comes across as a rather over generous symbolic gesture and a feasible explanation as to why this film has its detractors. Walesa was no saint, but he wasn’t the devil either, only in the eyes of the state controlled media and those in power.

Since I have no prior knowledge of Polish history or of Walesa’s achievements I can only take this film at face value and the story here is a compelling one, presented in a realistic manner – i.e: no impossibly handsome cast, no stirring orchestral soundtracks or deliberately didactic crisis points in the plot.

However much of what occurred during this period is a matter of public record a lot of which couldn’t be covered inside this film’s two hour run time, so this is a potted history of the first ten years of Walesa’s turbulent career.

Wadja does present the achievements of his subject very convincingly and for the most part, presents us with a man who is easy to support. He does become brash and little conceited by the end but with the progress he made and a Nobel Peace Prize to his name, this seems rather inevitable.

Only his long suffering wife, who bore him eight children and is still with him today, remains with her feet firmly on the ground and her head in the right space by the time the credits roll.

Robert Więckiewicz meets the challenge of portraying this controversial man head on and never wavers for a moment, keeping up the energy and conviction of his character with aplomb. He does unfortunately look like a comic parody with his thick moustache but the drive and personality of the man behind it becomes the captivating focal point.

Agnieszka Grochowska is also on top form as Danuta, the epitome of grace under pressure. Her importance to Walesa’s story feels underplayed but Grochowska makes us hungry to know more about her.

Possibly the most fascinating aspect of this film is how director Andrzej Wajda doesn’t show his age from behind the camera. At his age most directors take things easy and their output has a gentle meandering quality to them; this film is as a vibrant and energetic as they come, well paced and with an upbeat punk rock music soundtrack! Wajda also isn’t afraid to embrace new technology, super imposing Więckiewicz’s head onto the image of Walesa in genuine archive news footage.

As a film in its own right, Walesa – Man of Hope is an inspiring and well made film although its story telling balance is open to question, as we know politics is not a black and white topic. The performances and attention to historic detail on the visual front are remarkable, affording us a unique look at a society different to ours.

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