Shoshana (review) – BFI London Film Festival 2023

14th October 2023

Shoshana arrives in selected cinemas and on Sky Cinema later this year.

Given the current horrors unfolding in Israel and Gaza, Michael Winterbottom’s historical drama Shoshana is an urgent and timely reminder of the foundations of a conflict that continues to haunt our world. Based on the true story of two lovers divided by conflict, Winterbottom’s Shoshana takes us back to Palestine in 1938, where the British governed following the withdrawal of the Ottoman Empire after World War One. In 1917, Britain issued a declaration supporting the establishment of a “national home for the Jewish people” in Palestine. Following the Mandate over Palestine in 1922, Britain encouraged new Jewish settlements, including the expansion of Tel Aviv and its independence from Jaffa in 1934.

British military and civilian police in Palestine would actively oppress Arab groups opposed to Jewish immigration and try to subdue emerging radical groups fighting for a new State of Israel. Violence would reach new heights with the Arab Revolt of 1936-39, while the Second World War would lead to further division as Britain restricted entry to Jewish people to appease neighbouring countries. By the late 1930s, Britain found itself caught in the middle of a terrorist war, one it was ultimately unprepared for as violence spiralled out of control before Britain asked the United Nations to step in. Britain would relinquish its power in 1948 following a UN agreement to form a Palestinian and Jewish state, ultimately leaving the country to a dangerous conflict that has never found peace.

Winterbottom’s exploration of this turbulent period of British rule is told through the eyes of British policeman Thomas Wilkin (Douglas Booth) and Shoshana (Irina Starshenbaum), a member of the Haganah territorial army, a semi-illegal organisation founded to defend Jewish people before the establishment of the State of Israel in 1948. But as a tentative love blossoms between Wilkin and Shoshana, events in Palestine worsen as the British attempt to control a country of growing divides and unrelenting violence. Much to Wilkin’s horror, Geoffrey Morton (Harry Melling) is brought in to “deal” with the increase in terror and violence, a man who suppressed the Arab uprising through unconventional and often brutal means. But, while Wilkin understands the nuance of the growing divides, Morton carries an air of British superiority and arrogance that will only lead to further violence, mistrust and segregation as Britain’s grip slowly weakens.

Winterbottom is to be commended for grasping the nettles of a period of British history rarely discussed or dissected on film. Shoshana is unafraid to tackle the British role in a hundred-year conflict while exploring the devastating effects of oppression, segregation and ill-informed politics. Performances from Booth, Melling and Starshenbaum are nuanced and robust, reflecting the differing angles and perspectives of a divide that slowly becomes a gaping chasm. Equally impressive is the stunning cinematography of Giles Nuttgens and the assured direction of Winterbottom, who merges classic historical drama with the pacing of a taut political thriller.

However, with themes this big and this urgent, a limited runtime only partially allows Shoshana to explore the historical landscape of Palestine and the political decisions made by an occupying power. As a result, Shoshana often feels like a snapshot rather than a complete portrait of a troubled British rule; in fact, it is a perfect example of a film that would have worked better as a longer mini-series. However, despite this weakness, Winterbottom’s film is a brave and bold attempt to reflect the troubled history of Palestine and Israel and the uneasy British effort to walk the thin line between peace and all-out war. As a result, Shoshana is an urgent, timely and important journey back to a historical period that still casts a long shadow over current events.

  • Shoshana | United Kingdom | 2023


Shoshana is an urgent, timely and important journey back to a historical period that still casts a long shadow over current events.

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