Woman Of – Kinoteka 2024

Reviewer: Helen Tope

Writer and Director: Michael Englert and Malgorzata Szumowska

A skilful and sensitive portrait, Woman Of follows the life of Aniela Wesoly, a Polish trans woman.

Born as Andrzej (played by Mateusz Wieclawek), the film portrays Aniela from childhood to rebirth. The sensitive boy who refuses to take his socks off during an army medical (his painted toenails help him dodge the draft); the young man who falls in love with kindred spirit, Izabela (Cold War’s Joanna Kulig); the father who dotes on his children. The pieces of Andrzej’s life seem to fit into place, but psychologically, Aniela is in freefall. She knows, instinctively, that she is transgender, but Poland is socially conservative, and Aniela (played by Malgorzata Hajewska) finds some escape in writing a diary of her thoughts.

Woman Of directors, Michael Englert and Malgorzata Szumowska, plot Aniela’s struggle for acceptance against a post-communist Poland, daring to reimagine itself in the last years of the twentieth century. But modern Poland is an uneven picture. While Aniela finds empathy in surprising places, her interaction with the country’s institutions, especially Polish law, show a system that is reluctant to change. Even now, Poland has no law on gender recognition.

Aniela visits doctors who tell her that being transgender is an “aberration”. When she refuses hormone injections, a good bout of casual sex is prescribed. It isn’t until the early 2000’s that Aniela finds a foundation where she can meet with other transgender people. It is a lifeline. Their experiences, finding peace and happiness, convinces her to start the transition process.

The impact of living as her authentic self sees some of Aniela’s relationships disintegrate. Joanna Kulig as Izabela is given enough space to vocalise her frustration and confusion, in an important scene where she confronts Aniela. The love they have for each other is undeniable, but Izabela is torn between what she feels and what is now expected of her. She cannot entirely cast Aniela off. The shifting axis of their relationship is complex but beautifully drawn.

For this film, casting was crucial. Both Englert and Szumowska did their due process, trying to find a transgender actor of the right age to play Aniela. It is a damning indictment of Poland’s approach to LGBTQIA+ freedoms, that they couldn’t find one. A generation of talent lost, due to their inability to access arts education and training. Playing Aniela, Malgorzata Hajewska’s performance is delicate and nuanced. She builds on the years of isolation experienced by Andrzej: the melancholy visibly weighs on her. But Woman Of strives for a sense of balance, not least in Aniela’s determination to grow and evolve. Hajewska, as a cis actor playing a transgender character, adjusts her physicality for every emerging scene: Aniela is revealing her self, layer by layer.

In its attitude, Woman Of considers Poland’s LGBTQIA+ history as an ongoing process. The film is both personal testimony and social / political commentary, and while the depiction of Poland is unsparing, there is the hope that films like this will, eventually, become a thing of the past.

Kinoteka Polish Film Festival 2024 takes place in venues across London 6 – 28 March.

The Reviews Hub Score:

Complex but beautiful

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The Reviews Hub Film Team is under the editorship of Maryam Philpott.

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