DIR: Peter Strickland
CAST: Hilda Peter, Norbert Tanko, Tibor Palffy
“Revenge will set her free”, says Katalin Varga’s misrepresentative tagline. That summary primes you to expect a visceral vengeance thriller, more along the lines of Thriller: A Cruel Picture or Oldboy. That’s not what Peter Strickland’s debut is.
Shooting in Romania, Strickland spent his life savings of £25,000 to make Katalin Varga. It was money well spent, because the film he has emerged with is the best directorial debut by a British filmmaker in a long time. Katalin Varga is a haunting slow burn of a film, whose final moments will stay with you long after the fade out. The story sees the eponymous Katalin (Peter) leaving her home village in Romania after an argument with her husband, and taking to the road with her 10-year-old son Orban (Tanko). She says that they are going to visit her sick mother, but it soon becomes clear that she has other matters to deal with, and that they are connected to the reason that her husband no longer wants to speak to her, or to Orban.
What Katalin Varga lacks in visceral thrills it more than makes up in tension. Right from the start there is a mystery at the centre of the film - why has Katalin left her home, what’s the secret driving her? It’s not hard to guess, though the details, when they come, are pretty shocking. The tension really ratchets up in the second half, beginning when Katalin meets a man named Gergely (Roberto Giacomello), and it starts to become clear why she’s taken this trip. After that meeting, though it still remains slow, almost stately in its pace, the film really becomes a thrilling watch, as Katalin is pursued on her journey, and, finding her ultimate quarry, discovers that he’s very different to what she expected.
Hilda Peter, who, as far as I can tell, had never acted in film before is absolutely extraordinary as Katalin. She’s in almost every scene of the film, and is genuinely fascinating to watch. A beautiful, sharp featured, woman in her early 30’s, Peter has what is perhaps best described as a malleable face, she seems to change from scene to scene, to look different depending whether Katalin is at that point playing mother, seductress or avenger. Her best moment, and the film’s, comes in a five-minute monologue that reveals the full story behind the secret she’s been keeping during the film’s first hour. Peter’s matter of fact recitation of the story hits you like a punch in the gut, and you can also appreciate the many levels on which the scene is working, how the tone plays completely different ways for each of the two other characters in the scene. It’s quite possibly the best piece of acting you’ll see in 2009.
This isn’t to say that the rest of the cast fails to impress. Young Norbert Tanko gives a fine, natural performance as Orban and Tibor Palffy is brilliant, making a character who would, in any other movie, probably be a one dimensional figure of hate layered and almost sympathetic at times. It’s clear that Peter Strickland has a strong command of his cast, as he draws good work out from even the bit parters.
Strickland equally clearly knew exactly what he wanted visually, because Katalin Varga never looks cheap, indeed it is a gorgeous film. Strickland gets a lot of value for free, simply by virtue of filming in such beautiful countryside, but a bad filmmaker can make the most beautiful place in the world look ugly. Strickland’s eye for his characters surroundings calls to mind Terence Malick. What’s really notable about the look of this film though is how, without his shots feeling overly contrived or designed, Strickland achieves such beautiful compositions, and how he manages to give the camera a real freedom, often shooting handheld, without succumbing to the shaky-cam fad.
There aren’t many negative things to say about this film, but on the downside, though the performances and imagery remain strong all the way, the credibility of the script takes a slight dive after that show-stopping monologue. There’s also a tiny issue with the ending. For my money it is just one shot too long. If Strickland had gone out on the shocking cut to black that comes before the credits the film’s already strong impact might have been even greater. However, these are nitpicks about a great film. I’ll be keeping an eye on both Peter Strickland and Hilda Peter from now on, and if you like good movies then you should too.