The quest for justice, told through one of its professional advocates, is one of cinema’s most common narrative devices. It’s why so many of us grow up feeling that lawyers must comprise approximately half of the workforce and the job largely consist of delivering three-and-a-half minute monologues. While it’s one of cinema’s most useful professions in terms of structuring plot and themes, the reality of the corrupt and self-serving legal system is starkly out of sync with James Stewart’s Paul Biegler and Reese Witherspoons’ Elle Woods.
Still, despite the high standards of their lawyer colleagues on screen and the woeful ones of those experienced by many in real life, Canan, the protagonist of “Hesitation Wound” is a compelling, knotty heroine that doesn’t over-concern herself with on what end of the spectrum she lies. She is a performance wrapped in a performance. Taking on the role of “lawyer” with a hardened artifice that, even before the plot wraps her up in moral quandaries, shows her to be a complex, empathetic, morally upstanding, chainsmoking, brittle-shelled pragmatist, with no fulfilling identity beyond her profession. Most impressively, that level of nuanced characterization unspools within the first 10 minutes of the film, thanks to a truly stunning performance by Tulin Ozen.
Canan operates within the patriarchal constructs still lingering in Turkey, as well as the societal and legal systems around the world full-stop. She once fled the small city she called home, feeling suffocated by its limits, but has since returned to family duty. Now, as an independent professional woman, the city seems all the more stifling. In each scene, she is a step ahead of the people she encounters, at times seemingly transported from a wholly different dimension to those who she defends as counsel.
Despite her success and being lauded as the “hardest working lawyer in this place” by a colleague, she is not a bottomless well of giving. Her energy is bountiful as she defends the defenseless, she rarely bothers to pay for tea. She is capable of exuding competence and has a chicly coordinated wardrobe of emerald green silk shirts and perfectly tailored jeans — even with the outward respect afforded her profession, she remains stifled and undermined in nearly every room she enters.
Director Selman Nacar picks her out as a rare, albeit societally disquieting, gem, from its opening frames with the Turksuh suburbs in early morning bathed in eerie blue, aside from a single distinct figure, marked out with acid yellow light. This is not Nacar’s first rodeo, as a Turkish and American filmmaker who has been drawing promising buzz on both sides of the Atlantic, with his debut “Between Two Dawns” receiving festival acclaim, and the evocatively titled “Hesitation Wound” marking his second Venice premiere.
Though the film speaks to something more significant, the plot itself covers a single day in the life of Canan, our stoic criminal lawyer having a day with stress levels akin to Kiefer Sutherland in the later seasons of “24.” During the day, our protagonist must tend to her mother, confined to a hospital bed until the inevitable. Though her family and ability to care for her mother extend beyond her, Canan is a natural-born leader in every field, and the film sees her attempting to take control of the senseless cruelty that surrounds her. When faced with the sentencing of a man she has been tasked with defending, this becomes an even more challenging prospect. This is made worse by the Turkish courtrooms, chaotic in logic and lit with sickly hues of green, led by figures who pre-determine the innocence of the people they try before the case has started and are woefully inadequate vessels for her determined sense of right and wrong.
While the film has the same steadfast moral compass as its protagonist, seeing justice as the ultimate goal, the system is painfully inept. The film falters slightly in devoting depictions of the crime itself to witness testimony, depriving us of the glorious images of Turkish landscapes that bookend the film. As skilled an actress as Tulin Ozen is, it proves too large a weight to carry for a single character to be the moral compass as well as the embodiment of struggles with caring for aging parents, patriarchal oppression, and the pressure to be a strong, uncynical optimist in the face of such mayhem.
At times “Hesitation Wound” has fun with the set up and is self-aware enough to poke fun at how brilliant and compelling its protagonist is. Like when having her deliver legal arguments with perfect composure while the shabby courthouse literally falls apart in the margins of the frame. Nacar does not choose to compartmentalize Canan’s life in the same way, having the emotional impact of the court bleed into her time with her mother in the hospital and vice versa. That’s also true of the gallows humor that emerges at the bedside and in the courtroom, with the director bringing a rare wit to even the grimmest of circumstances.
As the storylines converge, and Canan becomes increasingly overwhelmed by both, it uncovers the subtext of each. Fundamentally, this is a tale of a woman convinced that if she is smart enough, confident enough, and competent enough, the world will bend to her will. Yet, that is not the world she, or any of us, live in. The courthouse disintegrates despite the local mosque receiving extensive repairs, and all her expertise cannot buy her mother more time on this earth.
In terms of incentivizing future generations to take up the profession of its subject, “Hesitation Wound” ranks for lawyers around where “Uncut Gems” did for jewelers. Regardless, as a film, it’s a truly enticing and welcoming sub-90-minute treat. Between the social commentary, depth of composition and subtlety of performance, Nacar finds the distinctly delicious sweet spot. Still, the film never quite feels like the apex of its protagonist or its filmmaker’s talents. It hints at all the wonders of which they are capable, particularly given just what is able to be accomplished in this short period of time. If there is any justice in the world, this is a filmmaker who should be having international festival premieres for many years to come.
“Hesitation Wound” premiered at the 2023 Venice Film Festival. It is currently seeking U.S. distribution.