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"The Wasp Network": saggy and fairly underwhelming

The Wasp Network lacks intent and is quite lackadaisical and rote which is not something that you’d expect from a director whose previous credits include Clouds of Sils Maria (2014) and Irma Vep (1996).

By Harri Knight-Davis, First Year, Film and Television

Olivier Assayas’ latest film arrives on Netflix with little to no fanfare and middling reviews from the festival circuit last year. So, expectations were low going into the film, but as a fan of Assayas’ previous efforts I still had hope.

With a saggy and fairly underwhelming opening hour I could see why the critics were not waxing lyrical about it; however, with a revelation at approximately the hour mark the film steers itself into much more interesting places and delivers an engaging and thought-provoking second half.

Wasp Network follows Rene Gonzalez (Edgar Ramírez) who one day abandons his wife Olga (Penélope Cruz) and child to move to Miami to improve the lives of his fellow citizens in Cuba under Castro. He is soon joined by Juan (Wagner Moura) for the same reason, while Ana (Ana de Armas) and Gerardo (Gael Garcia Bernal) also get caught up in this intriguing true story.

Penélope Cruz as Olga Salanueva in The Wasp Network | Courtesy of IMDb

The sprawling film takes place in the 90’s in Cuba and Miami. Writer and director Assayas tries to cover a tremendous amount of ground including the impacts of Communism, the people fighting to retain it and ‘traitors’ who are trying to liberate Cuba. At times this vast view of the topic can feel glancing, but the film is more interested in the characters themselves and the personal toll of political and revolutionary networks.

Assayas has admitted to making this film as a retort to criticisms of him making films of “French people talking in offices”, specifically Non-Fiction (2018). This is a director who seems out of his comfort zone, who at times struggles to balance the narrative and politics of the film with the interconnected personal lives of the characters. This leaves some of the female characters, specifically Ana de Armas’ Ana, with very little to work with apart from being the concerned and often bewildered wife of Juan.

Edgar Ramírez as Rene Gonzalez in The Wasp Network | Courtesy of IMDb

For the most part the actors are at the top of their game, with Penélope Cruz stealing the show in the last half an hour. Once the film begins to reveal its mysteries and once the characters’ lives begin to unravel, you can begin to see the foundations built by Assayas, leaving the final third of the film to be emotionally draining due to the investment into the lives of the characters.

Wasp Network is interspersed with very tidy set-pieces which help propel the narrative of the story and give the film an energy (though at times this lacks). Both an aerial plane sequence and a scene planting a hotel bomb are shot and edited with verve, showing Assayas’ ability to move away from his art-house roots and create something wholly different from his regular touchstones.

Ana de Armas as Ana Margarita Martinez in The Wasp Network | Courtesy of IMDb / Ronin Novoa Wong

Once it is clear what Assayas is aiming for the film is easier to climb aboard and enjoy the ride, but for the opening hour there is something seriously amiss with this cold war drama. It lacks intent and is quite lackadaisical and rote, which is not something you’d expect from a director whose previous credits include Clouds of Sils Maria (2014) and Irma Vep (1996). Although the film picks up later on, once plot details are revealed, Assayas couldn’t find a way to shape a narrative that is constantly engaging.

Wasp Network is asking audiences to see past the convoluted politics and offers a sympathetic look into the lives of people who have risked it all for what they believe in. By the final few minutes of the film the political allegiances of Rene and Olga are unimportant, as viewers are observing deeply personal moments in real people’s lives. In these final moments the uneven and unfocused script is forgotten as the film tries to understand the fatal decisions the characters have made and whether their sacrifices were in any way significant.

Featured: IMDb / Rovin Novoa Wong

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