One might call director Władysław Pasikowski the master of WWII drama on film. His new feature, The Messenger (pol.: Kurier), is the latest in a series of movies about the experience of the Second World War in Poland from different perspectives. This time, he’s chosen to focus on the nigh-legendary figure of Jan Nowak-Jeziorański (1914-2005). Called ‘The Courier from Warsaw’, Nowak was a WWII soldier and resistance fighter who proved to be one of the most important points of contact between the Polish exile government in London and the resistance movement Home Army (‘Armia Krajowa’) back in Poland. Throughout the early 1940s – after escaping German imprisonment – Nowak served as an envoy, travelling through Nazi-occupied Europe several times. Given the adventurous and often hair-raising blueprint – Nowak’s real life – Pasikowski has done well in focusing on one particular episode of the man’s life: his journey to Warsaw in preparation for the Warsaw Uprising in the summer of 1944. Zooming into a space of only a few days allows the director some detailed interpretation of the tensions before the uprising – relying on an audience aware of both Nowak’s biography and the details of the Warsaw Uprising.
Even if this is unfamiliar territory, The Messenger makes for an entertaining picture, James Bond style. Played by the handsome Philippe Tłokiński, Nowak is turned into a charming gentleman, who knows how to deal with rude American soldiers in style just as much as he can convince high army commanders and sceptical members of the exile government with cold logic. Lasting just over an hour-and-a-half, the film follows Nowak’s journey from London to Warsaw, intersected by short sequences about events in an ever-more perilous Warsaw: here, we encounter brief scenes showing the horrors inflicted by the SS, the disappointment for the lack of Allied support and a hesitant reaction towards the Soviet army, which would soon be standing at the city gates. Carefully timed and welded together, the film maintains suspense until the last minute –despite the fact that anyone slightly familiar with Polish history will already know about the outcome. This is perhaps Palikowski’s most successful coup: almost throughout, The Messenger is so captivating that the audience forgets what it already knows – just to be told it anew.
Moving from London to Brindisi, to an airfield in the Polish countryside, the costumes and special effects are high-end – and just at the right measure, so as not to make scenes of war seem too bombastic (the most common pitfall of popular cinema these days). There are several languages and many facets that bring come the complexities of war, even among allies, including opinions that range from high-ranging officials to farmers in the countryside. Nowak’s always somewhere in-between and seems to be moving at ease in any situation: he’s convinced that the Polish have to fight for their country, and nothing can keep him from bringing his message to those who need to receive it.
In a nutshell, The Messenger is a high-end spy thriller, whose occasional predictability is skilfully counterbalanced by permanent suspense. This is not least due to Tłokiński’s performance as the suave agent, who cannot be fooled by Nazi agents (Bradley James) nor beguiling mysterious women (Julie Engelbrecht). There are some successful twists and turns – and only one rather strange sequence, in which Nowak has a visionary dream, which adds a shock element, but interrupts the flow of the film. Safe for this mismatched scene, the acting is neat, the plot is neat, the set is neat. ‘Great Sunday entertainment’, one might think – and would be right, save for one thing: the role of women in the film. In 2019, there are simply no excuses anymore for juxtaposing one-dimensional female supporting roles with unquestionable, heroic male protagonists. Even (or: especially?) when focusing on a national hero like Nowak, there should be room for interpretation and for new points of view. By choosing to continue the sleek yet conventional narrative of a national hero, other voices in history get lost. It’s time to unearth them, rather than to push them further aback. Can there be other ways of depicting pivotal events like the Warsaw Uprising, or figures like Nowak? By most standards of the trade, The Messenger is a good film, fitting for mainstream cinemas. Yet its glossy presentation comes at the cost of overly simplified characters – one that especially its female roles have to bear.
KURIER/ THE MESSENGER was released in the UK by Bulldog Film Distribution on 28 June 2019.