Shoshana review – a quiet love story entangled in deadly Middle East politics

<span>Oddly subdued affair … Irina Starshenbaum and Douglas Booth in Shoshana by Michael Winterbottom.</span><span>Photograph: Altitude</span>
Oddly subdued affair … Irina Starshenbaum and Douglas Booth in Shoshana by Michael Winterbottom.Photograph: Altitude

Working with co-writers Laurence Coriat and Paul Viragh, Michael Winterbottom hits a clear, confident stride with a robustly well made, if emotionally flavourless historical drama set during the British mandate in what was then Palestine. It is a film that speaks in a complex way to the current Gaza debate, contending that Zionism has anti-colonialism and anti-imperialism in its 20th-century manifestation: a rage against the British masters. But the implication is that it learned habits of ruthlessness from these very people.

The film is based on the true story of Shoshana Borochov, a socialist Zionist writer who came with her Ukrainian family to Tel Aviv as a child in the 1920s and grew up to have a long-term romantic relationship with a British police officer called Thomas Wilkin, who was assassinated by the militant group Lehi, otherwise known as the Stern Gang, in 1944. Douglas Booth plays Wilkin, and Shoshana is played by the very stylish Russian actor Irina Starshenbaum (known for Kirill Serebrennikov’s 1980s-set rock romance Leto).

In classic Hollywood style Winterbottom distinguishes between the “good Brit” – the thoughtful, good-natured Wilkin, who wants to engage with the non-violent strand of Zionism – and the “bad Brit”, the dead-eyed colonial police officer who simply believes in violence, torture and suppression. This latter is Geoffrey Morton, played by Harry Melling, who gained a footnote in history after being accused of shooting Avraham Stern in unclear circumstances. The difference between them is important, although in real life, working closely together as they were, Wilkin and Morton might not have been quite as different as all that.

The movie is costumed, staged and acted with intelligence and care although, after a while, whenever you see a street scene in wide shot, quiet for a few seconds, you tense for the inevitable bomb-blast. The central Romeo-and-Juliet love story is oddly subdued and opaque, with some unrelaxed line-readings, and so the political irony and even tragedy of their relationship is submerged also. I can imagine David Lean giving Thomas and Shoshana’s love affair 10 times more throttle, although Winterbottom’s concern is for clarity and context, not emotional fireworks.

• Shoshana is in UK and Irish cinemas from 23 February.