Human trafficking in postwar Bosnia, enabled by the United Nations workers sent there to maintain peace and order, is the sad subject of Canadian director Larysa Kondracki's harrowingly effective thriller, "The Whistleblower." While the scenario of a Western do-gooder fighting injustice abroad often makes for sanctimonious, hand-wringing issue cinema, this accomplished debut feature avoids most of the usual pitfalls, channeling its outrage into a tense, focused piece of storytelling with a powerful sense of empathy. Bleak, often unbearable subject matter poses a real commercial challenge, but Rachel Weisz's topnotch turn could improve the film's prospects.
Scripted by Kondracki and Eilis Kirwan, "The Whistleblower" is based on the experiences of Kathryn Bolkovac, a cop from Lincoln, Neb., who in 1999 accepted a $100,000 one-year contract to work for the U.N. in Bosnia. After establishing Kathy (Weisz) as a single mom hoping to make enough money to move closer to her daughter, the film ships her off to Sarajevo, where she heads the org's Gender Office, working with local cops to investigate rape, domestic abuse and sex trafficking.
Idealistic Kathy is determined to do her part in healing the war-torn nation; her arrival produces immediate results, earning her the approbation and friendship of Madeleine Rees (Vanessa Redgrave), head of the U.N. Human Rights Commission, as well as the romantic attentions of a fellow agent (Nikolaj Lie Kaas). But her job becomes far more difficult when she learns that local bar owners are trafficking women, and that her U.N. colleagues are not only abetting the dirty trade but also visiting the brothels regularly.
Kathy sets out to expose this corrupt operation -- no easy task, given that all U.N. employees are granted diplomatic immunity, and the head of the repatriation program (Monica Bellucci, more haggard than usual) is useless to the point of complicity. Kathy's determination is strengthened by the plight of two Ukrainian sex slaves, Raya (Roxana Condurache) and Irka (Rayisa Kondracki), whom she encourages to testify against their captors, with devastating consequences.
Pic soon descends into darkness both figurative and literal (nighttime lensing predominates, and d.p. Kieran McGuigan bathes many of the outdoor shots in a greenish murk), and Weisz's performance holds the viewer every step of the way. Her Kathy could be a spiritual sister to the anti-Big Pharma crusader Weisz played in "The Constant Gardener"; it's a conventional but gripping star turn, fueled by a righteous combo of human decency and fearless initiative.
Like most films of its type, "The Whistleblower" exists mainly to shed light on a sobering topic (bluntly brought home in the final reels), but it provides no shortage of dramatic satisfactions along the way. And while some may fault the film for favoring a white outsider's perspective, the better to ease mainstream audiences into issues they'd rather not think about, its deployment of Kathy as an entry point makes simple dramatic sense, given that this is a story about a Westerner bringing to light specifically Western abuses of power.
Even still, the film takes pains to do right by Irka and especially Raya (played with agonizing vulnerability by Condurache), regarding them with dignity under even the most nightmarish of circumstances. One especially grueling scene of torture in the brothels arguably crosses the line and will have viewers squirming in their seats, yet one always senses a storyteller trying to do justice to the scenario's horrors rather than exploit them.
Low-budget production was shot over 36 days, primarily in Bucharest, Romania. Rounding out the fine cast are Jeanette Hain as Raya's mother and David Strathairn as a U.N. associate who comes into play during the surprisingly suspenseful sequence that caps the picture.