There’s something miraculous – and unsettling – about the hostage film genre. At the beginning of the new Polish thriller Prime Time, Sebastian storms a TV studio at gunpoint. A police officer, pretty reasonably, asks him to not aim his gun at the presenter’s head. Viewers may find themselves inexplicably irritated with the negotiator; leave him alone and let him get on with it. What is it about the setup of genre conventions that engender support for someone who is clearly doing bad things? Maybe it’s because they are a kind of underdog story – proof that one person, with one simple act, can have institutions at their beck and call. These features show that anyone can take on authority and if not win, at least make others squirm a little.
This quality certainly appealed to director Jakub Piatek, and his writing partner Łukasz Czapski, who were inspired to create this movie after feeling like they’d lost their sense of rebellion in their 30s. They try to revive it in their young antihero, played by Bartosz Bielenia (known for the Oscar-nominated Corpus Christi). The actor is great. Sebastian is a walking concoction of all the things that could lead someone to do something so stupid – anger, pain, naivety, recklessness. It is easy to root for him.
Prime Time is predominantly interested in its characters, particularly the protagonist and his two hostages. It is set in the final few hours of the 20th century, and the hopelessness of the three central players is nicely thrown into relief by the excitement around the new millennium, snippets of which we see on monitors in the TV production booth. The first-time director’s film is really well put together. The look, cinematography and production design, in particular, are incredible, working in harmony to draw something specific from this moment: the forced sheen of a struggling post-communist economy with a hint of 70s paranoia. It is the perfect backdrop to Sebastian’s disillusionment.
The problem is that Prime Time imbibes some of its main character’s lack of purpose and runs out of steam a little – the interaction between the central players is not as engaging as it needs to be. But, it uses the hostage genre cleverly to explore a persona. The feature leaves behind a real sense of melancholy, which is also present in the TV competition for a shitty car, and the archival glimpses of young men who want to go “West”. It’s worth watching for Bielenia’s performance alone. I’m rounding down – this is really 3.5 stars.
Prime Time does not have a UK release date yet.
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Watch the trailer for Prime Time here: