Review: Courage (2011)

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Cast: Robert Wieckiewicz, Lukasz Simlat, Gabriela Muskala
Director: Greg Zglinski
Country: Poland
Genre: Drama
Official Trailer: Here


Editor’s Notes: The following review of Courage is a part of a collection of reviews by Ronan Doyle during his attendance of the 10th Annual Jameson Dublin International Film Festival.

Hurtling down a country road alongside a speeding train packed with jeering young men, the driver of a battered sports car accelerates to pull ahead in this impromptu race. Ignoring the protests of his passenger and the panicked honking of the train driver, he takes a sharp turn and drives over the track, nearly being crushed in the process. It is with this dangerous display of faux-bravado that we are introduced to Fred and his brother, the passenger, Jerzy. Together they own a local internet company inherited from their stroke-inflicted father, but their opinions on its future are directly opposed. When Jerzy jumps to the defence of a harassed woman during a train ride to a business meeting, Fred fails to aid him when he is beaten by the gang of youths responsible and callously thrown out of the moving carriage. Courage follows the aftermath of the violent incident and the effect it has on Fred, his relationship with his family, and his burning sense of responsibility.

An interesting conflict constantly at play in the background of Courage is the clash between the old world and the new. The antagonism of ideals finds manifestation immediately in the central fraternal relationship

Director Greg Zglinski, who also co-wrote the screenplay, takes what has been marketed as a reworking of the Cain and Abel story and uses it to espouse views on inner turmoil in a modernist world. An interesting conflict constantly at play in the background of Courage is the clash between the old world and the new. The antagonism of ideals finds manifestation immediately in the central fraternal relationship: Fred is the traditionalist keen to maintain a sense of cultural identity as a local businessman; Jerzy is the modernist entrepreneur keen to expand the company toward the conglomerated business world of today. Trains feature as a key recurring image, their representation of motion, of progress, of moving forward a key symbolic fixture of the film. Zglinski embellishes settings with his characters’ personalities, Jerzy’s consistently professional attire at odds with the informal jeans and t-shirt management of Fred. At a crisp 85 minutes, Courage entrusts a lot of its characterisation to such visual details, and more importantly to the physicality of its performances.

Taking the role of Fred is Robert Wieckiewicz, who will be most known to audiences for his leading role in this year’s Foreign Language Oscar-nominee In Darkness. There’s a complexity to Wieckiewicz’s face that turns even the simplest of expressions to a bountiful well of humanity. Opinions on the extent of this character’s culpability might widely diverge, but the brute force of this performance makes it all but impossible to hold it against him. He doesn’t speak about the thoughts that run through his mind, but nor does he need to; every second of self-loathing and seething shame finds itself incarnated on each crag of his extraordinary face. The camera revels in the details: his twitching brow; his downturned mouth; the slightest of motions in hand or leg that betray an unshakeable discomfort with his own existence. There is to be seen in this character an accentuated version of the feelings that have plagued each and every one of us at various times in our lives: of knowing we have done wrong and spending every waking moment in a tantalising state of anxious accountability. This is a man torn apart by his actions, or rather his conscious decision to remain inactive at a time when they were called for. Wieckiewicz embodies a figure of cowardice with a resounding humanity, infusing Fred with an instinctive pity that overcomes any urge to hold his misdeeds against him.

There is to be seen in this character an accentuated version of the feelings that have plagued each and every one of us at various times in our lives: of knowing we have done wrong and spending every waking moment in a tantalising state of anxious accountability.

The way in which Courage neatly avoids overt emotional confrontation only adds to the significance of its effect, preferring instead to root itself in a realistic interpretation of how a situation such as this would really unfold. There are no theatrical clashes between husband and wife here, no exaggeratedly emotional eruptions occurring between parents and son. There is only the searing truth of how it feels to be responsible, to feel within oneself the burden of deserved blame, and to know that one must live with the moments of cowardice by which others will inevitably gauge us. In some vague effort to rid himself of this distressing self-contempt, Fred makes it his mission to track down his brother’s assailants, in the process discovering an online video of the event. The scenes where he is forced to confront the irrefutable evidence of his own complete failure are heart-breaking, leaving a shadowy void of a man for whom redemption is beyond attainable, a man irretrievably removed from the exaggerated bravado of the opening scene.

Courage is a film slowly presented, languishing in the leaden reality of how it feels to be disgusted with one’s own failures in life. Wieckiewicz proves himself a formidable actor capable of a remarkable range of wordless emotions, a pained face among the darkness of a chapfallen conscience. Zglinski’s sense of characterisation finds expression in uniquely cinematic ways, layering meaning into the background details and concocting unobtrusive secondary thematic standpoints that no less make their presence felt. The restraint of the screenplay showcases an emotional maturity that reveals the truth of life: not composed of conveniently cinematic peaks, but built from on-going feelings that linger and ferment, becoming an interminable part of who we are.

[notification type=”star”]84/100 ~ GREAT. The way in which Courage neatly avoids overt emotional confrontation only adds to the significance of its effect, preferring instead to root itself in a realistic interpretation of how a situation such as this would really unfold. Wieckiewicz proves himself a formidable actor capable of a remarkable range of wordless emotions, a pained face among the darkness of a chapfallen conscience.[/notification]

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About Author

Ronan Doyle is an Irish freelance film critic, whose work has appeared on Indiewire, FilmLinc, Film Ireland, FRED Film Radio, and otherwhere. He recently contributed a chapter on Arab cinema to the book Celluloid Ceiling, and is currently entangled in an all-encompassing volume on the work of Woody Allen. When not watching movies, reading about movies, writing about movies, or thinking about movies, he can be found talking about movies on Twitter. He is fuelled by tea and has heard of sleep, but finds the idea frightfully silly.