Sheldon Kirshner

Shoshana Unfolds In Mandate Palestine

Michael Winterbottom’s absorbing movie, Shoshana, turns on the romantic relationship between the daughter of a Zionist luminary and a British policeman in Mandate Palestine. It is also about the armed struggle that pitted Britain against two right-wing Zionist organizations, the Irgun and its radical offshoot, the Stern Gang.

This 119-minute movie will be screened on June 4 by the Toronto Jewish Film Festival, which runs from May 30 to June 9.

Shot on location in Puglia, Italy, it unfolds mainly in Tel Aviv from 1939 to 1946. It is bookended by two major events — the release of the British White Paper, which restricted Jewish immigration to Palestine and land sales there to Jews, and the King David Hotel bombing, which resulted in the deaths of scores of British officials, Jews and Arabs.

The film is interspersed with vintage footage of 1930s and 1940s Palestine and of World War II. These touches add heft to its attempts to be authentic in terms of locales and ambience.

Shoshana Borochov (Irina Starshenbaum), a journalist and a member of the Haganah defence force, is at the center of it. Her character is based on a real life figure who died in Israel in 2005 at the age of 93.

A socialist in the mould of her late revered father, Ber, she works for a peaceful Palestine where Jews and Arabs can coexist in two separate states. Her vision is denigrated by right-wing Zionists, who believe that the entire land belongs to Jews. They are at odds not only with the Arabs, but with the British governing authorities.

A nonconformist, Shoshana is dating a British police officer named Tom Wilkin (Douglas Booth), who speaks a modicum of Hebrew and appears somewhat sympathetic to the Zionist cause. Her colleagues warn her to be careful because they suspect that Tom is a spy. Hotheads condemn her as a British “whore.”

As the film proceeds, an Irgunist assembling a bomb in an apartment building accidentally blows himself up, the British launch a concerted search for Avraham Stern (Aury Alby), an Irgun zealot, and Tom’s colleague, Geoffrey Morton (Harry Melling), is appointed to take command of a special force to crush the Irgun.

Morton, a non-nonsense figure, captures Stern. But in 1940, after the Irgun consents to a ceasefire with the British, all Irgun prisoners, including Stern, are released from prison. Stern rejects the arrangement and, as a combatant in the Stern Gang, continues his battle for a sovereign Jewish homeland in Palestine. This includes robbing banks, gunning down British policemen and assassinating Jewish informers.

In the meantime, Morton advises Tom to break off his relationship with Shoshana.

He and Tom have different views over a number of pivotal issues. While Morton wants to arrest members of the Haganah, Tom believes this would be a mistake because of its cooperation with Britain in battling fascist Italy and Nazi Germany in World War II.

Tom’s measured views are appreciated neither by the Irgun nor the Stern Gang. They set their sights on him and Morton, prompting a senior British functionary to advise them to leave Tel Aviv for their own safety.

Shoshana, in terms of sets and costumes, is authentic. But Puglia and its coast are no substitutions for Tel Aviv and the Israeli coastline. The cast acquits itself well, with the Russian actress Irina Starshenbaum turning in an impressive performance as Shoshana and Booth and Melling delivering strong performances in their supporting roles.

The film was released shortly before the October 7 massacre in southern Israel. It is all the more relevant today as Israel’s war with Hamas approaches its eighth month.


About the Author
Sheldon Kirshner is a journalist in Toronto. He writes at his online journal,