It’s fair to say that Polish cinema has struggled to find its place in the sun until recently. The twin successes of Pawel Pawlikowski’s Ida and Cold War have helped to put the national cinema on the map, which will hopefully open the door for other filmmakers from the country to step forward. Hitting UK cinemas this week is Nina, in which writer-director Olga Chajdas tries to stake her claim as the next major voice out of Poland.
The ingredients for compelling drama are there. At first, the movie focuses on a young lesbian woman, seen throwing one romantic liaison out of her apartment because her girlfriend just turned up at home. Next, we’re introduced to Nina (Julia Kijowska), who teaches French at a religious school run by her mother. After a tough day, she reverses into the original woman’s car. We learn that she’s border guard Magda (Eliza Rycembel) and her freewheeling take on life proves instantly appealing to Nina.
Kijowska shows the audience everything they need to know about Nina early on. She takes pleasure in her work and she’s in a loving marriage with mechanic Wojtek (Andrzej Konopka), but there’s something missing from her life that’s taking away the spark from behind her eyes. She’s irritable, jealous and lacking in passion for anything. Magda, who acts first and worries about consequences later, is pretty much her polar opposite.
There’s a spark of connection between them and Nina soon begins getting closer to the younger woman. She and Wojtek are unable to conceive a child, and Magda could be an ideal surrogate to carry their baby until it is born. Through a very boozy and excruciatingly awkward dinner, they appear to try to seduce her, but it quickly becomes clear they have no idea how to approach the issue. Nina takes it upon herself to spend more time alone with her and it’s when their connection begins to shift from a friendly arrangement to something more passionate that the film also catches fire – albeit only for a short while.
Kijowska and Rycembel are a blistering on-screen double act, from their frosty initial meeting at the site of the aforementioned car accident to their eventual explosion of passion. When Magda’s reaction to Nina’s long marriage is “aren’t you guys bored yet?”, Kijowska’s reaction sells the surprise and intrigue of Magda’s no-nonsense talk perfectly. These two have a palpable connection from their early meetings, with romantic tension and energy crackling in the air.
But it’s once that chemistry comes to fruition that Nina loses some of its dynamism and intrigue. After the honeymoon of their first moments together, Chajdas guides her film into clunky melodrama that’s at odds with the patient storytelling that has come before. It’s all intense red lighting – no one in this movie seems to know where their light switch is – and barked clichés in an attempt to mask a plot that is reaching for the beauty and elegance of Todd Haynes’s exceptional Carol.
It’s a shame that Nina falls so thoroughly and disappointingly down a melodramatic hole of its own making. For 45 minutes or so, the gently simmering tension and conversations loaded with subtext are compelling and intoxicating, helped by the strength of the very believable performances. But unfortunately, the movie loses its way as it moves into its third act and deals in developments that are, at best, a little bit clunky and, at worst, legitimately laughable.
Dir: Olga Chajdas
Scr: Olga Chajdas, Marta Konarzewska
Cast: Julia Kijowska, Eliza Rycembel, Andrzej Konopka
Prd: Marta Gozlinska, Aleksandra Guzewska, Andrzej Polec
DOP: Tomek Naumiuk
Music: Andrzej Smolik, Janusz Stoklosa
Run time: 130 mins
Nina is in UK cinemas now.