Firstly, I’d just like to say thank you to October Coast and Uncork’d Entertainment for sending me an online screener of the Polish made, Drama/Thriller film “Playground”, Co-Written and Directed by Bartosz Kowalski. Playground is a film that centers around three young kids on the final day of primary school in a small polish town. 12-year-old, Gabrysia (Michalina Swistun) hopes to tell popular classmate, Szymek (played by Nicolas Przygoda) that she has fallen in love with him, but not all goes to plan with third wheeler and best friend of Szymek, Czarek (played by Przemyslaw Balinski) in tow. The film also stars Pawel Karolak, Malgorzata Olczyk and Patryk Swiderski. I’d like to preface this review of Playground by informing readers that this film is in fact a modern take, albeit a Polish one, on the infamous true crime story of the murder of 3-year-old James Bulger that occurred in the early 90’s in England. I, myself was unaware of the specifics before I sat down to watch the film (the poster art at the time was completely different), and given the disturbing content, I don’t want others to be caught off guard.
I think Playground might be the first Polish film I’ve seen, if not, it’s certainly the first I’ve reviewed. There’s an abundance of high quality films being produced in Europe so I was intrigued when this one popped up in my inbox. Playground’s DP, Mateusz Skalski comes from a Documentary film background, and that really is highlighted in the standard of cinematography in this film. Everything is so superbly framed and cleanly shot, even the establishing shots. The color grading is perfectly balanced. The transitions during shots in Gabrysia’s segment are seamless, in turn making the entire edit tight at just 73 minutes (pre credits). The audio is clear and the English subtitles are accurate. Kristian Andersen (Lars von Trier’s regular composer) built almost the entire score around classical orchestral pieces and ballad tempo piano. The score only turns darker once the script calls for it in the final deadly act. It’s highly unlikely you’ll see a film (foreign or not) with this many memorable performances from child actors, all the more impressive is that all three are newcomers. In fact even the adult actors have minimal or no previous experience, though you’d never be able to tell. It’s difficult to buy that natural ability, and without it, Playground simply wouldn’t function.
In the opening thirty or forty minutes of the film, one by one we’re introduced to Gabrysia, Szymek and Czarek. Gabrysia seems to lack confidence, perhaps having been bought up in a conservative family. One can sense a hint of abuse in her past. As for Szymek, at first glance he looks like a polite young kid, all too willing to assist his wheelchair bound father with the mundane tasks of a day-to-day grind. It’s not until a spontaneous an unprovoked outburst at the end of the first act and several seemingly trivial things that make him tick, that one might suspect there’s more than meets the eye there. Then there’s Czarek. Lacking a father figure in his life, he’s forced to share a bedroom with his baby brother despite pleading with his mother over having the child removed because it’s preventing him from much-needed sleep. Czarek is also responsible for the food and the chores, yet older brother, Pawel (Bartlomiej Milczarek) gets off scot-free. The only real thing Czarek has is his friendship with Szymek and that proves to be toxic for both parties. I suppose a handful of things we witness could potentially point to some psychological abuse, and combined with the lack of parental guidance it’s probably feasible. I don’t think anyone could have seen the foreshadowing in what was to come though. There’s two scenes from Playground that will stay with me for the forseeable future. One, the look on the little boy’s face (Swiderski) and in his eyes as he’s so nonchalantly walked away from a mall ride, down an escalator and out of the shopping centre. Secondly, and more importantly, the final 8 minutes of the film. WARNING: This is NOT for the faint of heart, I assure you. The violence is certainly not glorified, Kowalski doesn’t showcase effects or set pieces to highlight destruction, it’s simply just horrifying to watch because it really happened. I want to commend Bartosz on paying the event respect by using a single wide shot structure from a long distance to convey the despicable content and what eventually befell the innocent boy.
On the technical front the only thing I noticed was that the music was a little too loud in the mix (though it is just was screener copy). The film has quite a brief run time as it is, but when you take into account the heavy themes, I think that’s a good thing. It wasn’t crucial for the scene between Szymek and his father (Karolak) to be portrayed in real-time. It does feel a fraction long and perhaps time may have been better spent delving further into his school life. When it comes to Gabrysia, hindsight would suggest she’s rather irrelevant to the story or the fate of the boys, she’s just something in their way. Other than adding an extra layer of bullying and shaming to the story (which I understand is ever-present in today’s society), her arc just acts as padding. Now, while I felt that Kowalski portrayed enough of the boys actions from the true story (definitely as much as I wanted to see), he technically only scratched the surface regarding the multitude of atrocities acted out by the two on the young toddler. By no means am I saying I wanted to see anymore, I’m simply stating that Playground only tells the half of it (and thank god for that) which if you’re one for the details, is technically a shortcoming.
Bartosz Kowalski’s, Playground reminds me of uneasy films like “The Great Ecstasy Of Robert Carmichael” or “Because Of The Cats”. It pulls few punches in depicting its own take on the true story murder of little James Bulger. Some may ask why the Polish felt the need to go there with a modern telling, and to be fair they’d have a point. Still, if you accept the film for what it is you’ll surely give it the credit it deserves. Skalski’s cinematography is amazing, Andersen’s musical composition is fitting for the desired mood and the entire cast give raw and believable performances. Both Przygoda and Balinski present a cold and calculated united front as the film slowly accelerates to a swift and harsh culmination. You never really get the chance to know if you feel anything for anyone until it’s too late and all you’re left with is a lifeless young boy. I have the utmost respect for how Kowalski handles the unfathomable, but that doesn’t make it an easier pill to swallow. There’s a couple of things that could’ve been tightened up, Gabrysia doesn’t fit how I thought she might and if you’re a stickler for authenticity the film isn’t as graphic as the real thing was. Playground’s callousness will leave you uncomfortable and with a sinking feeling in your stomach reminding you that you’ve just witnessed true evil. For that reason I find it hard to recommend, but it’s a wonderfully conceived film and you can check out the trailer below. Proceed at your own peril. Playground is now available on VOD (video on demand).
My rating for “Playground” is 8/10