❉ The ambituous drama series was awarded Best TV series at the 2019 Estonian Film and Television Awards.
Based on a bestselling book and considered by many to be the most successful Estonian produced television series of all time, The Whores (aka Litsid), is a 10-part, historically-rooted, romantic war drama which takes place in Estonia during the tumultuous year of 1939, with WWII ramping up in the background. Emotions are running high and uncertainty – in all forms – can be felt in the air. The action centers on the owner and employees at a high-end brothel in Tallinn, catering to various military men of varying ranks, while trying to navigate the tricky political waters of living in a small country that’s essentially caught in the middle of something much larger and more profound. The entrepreneurial Madame Kukk, played by the absolutely phenomenal Merle Palmiste who completely dominates every single moment she’s on-screen, is caught between having to maintain her business, and also the demands of all of the women who work at her establishment.
Created, co-starring, scored, edited, and entirely written and directed by Estonian multihyphenate Mart Sander, who’s also an artist, author, singer, and European television host, The Whores benefits from Sander’s pleasantly artistic sense of mise-en-scene all throughout, making the most of its scenic locations, even if some of the production design and costumes feel a little “new” – everything has a gleam, which while pleasing to the eye, gives off an aroma of heightened artificiality, which actually serves the series well in some instances, as it’s a soap opera, but one with clear dramatic stakes and rooted in history so that it all has a bit more heft.
Cinematographer Marianne Kõrver has a terrific eye for composition, with some strikingly composed shots peppered into each episode, while the entire program has a unified aesthetic atmosphere which feels completely in tune with what the director was likely trying to achieve. Sander’s playful musical score is a strong tech contribution.
What’s so much fun about The Whores is the way that Sander has fused all of the elements together into something that feels both light and impactful, sometimes all at once. There’s a bit of intrigue, some coy sexiness, and a whole lot of “drama” for all of the girls, so the atmosphere is always lively and busy (but not over-stuffed), while all of the day to day shenanigans are balanced by a few, more serious plot strands, which deserve to be discovered by the viewer unspoiled. What I’ll allow is that Sander never bites off more than he can chew with his entertaining narrative, giving enough space to Palmiste (who recalls Sarah Paulson) to lord over the entire piece with an incredible sense of purpose.
The supporting performances are strong across the board, with Gerda Johnson, Andres Dvinjaninov, and Lisette Pomerants most especially, all make strong impressions, partly due to the fact that they’re all unknown talents. It’s an ambitious serious, spoken in Estonian, English, German, and Russian, and special mention must be made for the extremely talented Pirjo Jonas, who sang all of her songs live on-set, adding to the overall verisimilitude of the piece.
The Whores won Best TV series at the 2019 Estonian Film and Television Awards, and can be seen in some European countries via various content providers. It’s the sort of program that Netflix International or Amazon would be wise to investigate, as the open-ended nature of the season one finale promises to offer even more intrigue and entertainment. There’s lots of stories that remain untold with these characters, and it’s the type of programme that could grab a Downton Abbey-esque following due to the period trappings and compelling dramatic through-line.
❉ Nick Clement is a freelance writer, having contributed to Variety Magazine, Hollywood- Elsewhere, Awards Daily, Back to the Movies, and Taste of Cinema and is a regular contributor to We Are Cult.. He’s currently writing a book about the works of filmmaker Tony Scott.