Fantasia first look: Spoor

An animal rights activist is at the centre of some unusual murders in Spoor

Polish cinema legend Agnieszka Holland (Europa Europa, In Darkness) returns with Spoor, an unusual blend of small town murder mystery, thriller and magical realism based on the novel by Olga Tokarczuk.

The film stars Agnieszka Mandat-Grabka as Janina Duszjeko, an elderly woman who lives on the outskirts of town. Once an engineer, Duszjeko now helps out at the local school and spends time with her beloved dogs, but her primary focus is the welfare of the local wildlife. When her pets go missing, she is absolutely bereft, but when the animal-hating locals start to turn up dead, she begins to suspect something almost unbelievable is taking place.

With a running time clocking in at just over two hours, Spoor certainly takes its time when it comes to solving the puzzle at its core, but it’s clear that Holland’s main interest is spending time with her lead rather than rushing through a crime story. Duszjeko is a fascinating character, full of life, heart and rage. She’s quick to make friends with fellow outcasts, but she bulldozes into confrontations with the local law enforcement, who treat her as an inconvenience and a joke. Holland and Mandat-Grabka don’t attempt to blunt her edges, and it’s interesting that the character’s unwavering insistence that any offence committed against any animal be treated the same as one against as the town’s citizens is presented with a clear-eyed objectivity from the filmmaker. She’s an occasionally frustrating protagonist in her refusal to allow any compromise, and a complex one.

Generally speaking, Spoor is more engaging during the quieter moments. The friendships Duszjeko forges with her neighbour, a rambling entomologist, a slightly eccentric IT expert and a troubled young woman are more rewarding than their attempts at investigation, and they give the character a history that informs her actions. However, there’s a tricky balance between this and the crime/genre element that rarely works, and the latter often feels like an afterthought.

It’s patchy and the ending is somewhat undewhelming, but there is something undeniably intriguing about the premise, setting and atmosphere, and it’s great to see a film centred on such an uncompromising character, and one that we see all too rarely.

Spoor was seen and reviewed at the Fantasia International Film Festival. Find out more information at their website.