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BLACK NIGHTS 2019 Competition

Review: The Coldest Game

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- Shot in Poland but with dialogue in English, Łukasz Kośmicki’s movie is a spy-thriller that possesses both the strengths and the weaknesses of a period genre film

Review: The Coldest Game
James Bloor, Bill Pullman and Lotte Verbeek in The Coldest Game

Spies? Check. A game of chess as a narrative device? Check. World peace at stake? Check. Alluring 1960s style? Check. Menacing atmosphere of the Cold War? Check. Famous cast? Check. Mate. Every piece, or rather pawn, in Łukasz Kośmicki’s debut film, The Coldest Game [+see also:
interview: Łukasz Kośmicki
film profile
]
, which has had its international premiere in Tallinn Black Nights’ competition, was designed meticulously and has resulted in an elegant spy-thriller that is more impressive than engaging.

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At its best, the film echoes the adaptations of John le Carré’s novels (mainly Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy [+see also:
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), and for that, much credit has to be given not only to the director, but also to the Oscar-nominated Paweł Edelman (An Officer and a Spy [+see also:
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, Based on a True Story [+see also:
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, The Pianist [+see also:
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]
, Afterimage [+see also:
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trailer
interview: Zofia Wichlacz
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]
), Roman Polański’s and Andrzej Wajda’s pet cinematographer, and Oscar-winning production designer Allan Starski (Schindler’s List).

The Coldest Game starts in 1962, in the USA, where former chess master (and currently harmless drunk) Joshua Mansky (Bill Pullman) resides. Suddenly, he is kidnapped by the CIA and flown to freezing Warsaw to take part in some chess championships, taking the place of an American champion who has suddenly died. It’s the hottest period of the Cold War, which will come to be known as the Cuban Missile Crisis. Mansky meets two American agents, Stone (a strong performance by Nothing Personal [+see also:
film review
trailer
interview: Urszula Antoniak
interview: Urszula Antoniak
film profile
]
’s Lotte Verbeek) and White (James Bloor), and their boss, Novak (Jackie [+see also:
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’s Corey Johnson). Mansky’s mission, which he is forced to accept, is to play against Russian master Gavrylov (Evgenyi Sidikhin) while CIA agents establish contact with their spy in the Soviet ranks. Time is not on their side, and nor is General Krutov (played by Aleksey Serebryakov, known for Leviathan [+see also:
trailer
film profile
]
and Cargo 200), who is as ominous as the communist empire he represents. Mansky finds an unlikely ally in the director of the Palace of Science and Culture (Robert Więckiewicz, the lead in Walesa: Man of Hope [+see also:
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trailer
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]
), who gives him a night-time tour of Warsaw as well as plying him with vodka, which works like a magic potion on Mansky – it slows his beautiful mind down to “normal”, genius speed, which is all he needs to succeed in a chess game.

Kośmicki’s directing is steady, and his strength lies more in working with “the game” than with the “players”. Hence why The Coldest Game, as the title suggests, is lacking in human emotion. At first, we don’t understand why Mansky agrees to carry out his Warsaw mission, and then it’s difficult to cheer him on in his efforts. Pullman replaced William Hurt, who was originally cast as Mansky, but an accident befell him during the early part of the shoot. And while the Lost Highway star gives a solid performance, it feels like the story would resonate better with an actor with a darker on-screen presence.

The most interesting characters are Stone, a spy-cum-femme fatale, and General Krutov, whom Serebryakov plays with intensity, without ever going over the top. The film is almost entirely spoken in English (with some lines of dialogue in Polish and Russian) and has an international feel, so it should work well in markets outside of Kośmicki’s native Poland. Assuming that one likes spy-thrillers, of course.

The Coldest Game was produced by Piotr Woźniak-Starak and Krzysztof Terej through their Polish company Watchout Studio, which previously staged two domestic box-office hits, Gods [+see also:
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]
and The Art of Loving [+see also:
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]
; and Daniel Baur, of K5Film. The movie was released in Poland on 8 November by Next Film, and the international rights are handled by IKH Promotion.

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