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A blue New England sky frames a postcard home. Light glints off the snow. A well-dressed man stands on the porch, like an actor in a publicity photo.

He contemplates his unintended complicity in a slave trade. Circumstances may soon reveal his culpability.

That wouldn't be good for profits.

Another man, not nearly so well-dressed, chases a young woman down a dirty London street. We hear only desperate breath and footfall. The man overtakes her and knocks her down behind parked cars. He kicks her, brutally and repeatedly.

He stands aside. His boots have pointed, metal toes.

Filmed in Romania, England, and Canada, 2004's Sex Traffic ranks among the most powerful and disturbing television dramas in recent years.

Director: David Yates
Writer: Abi Morgan

Cast (partial)
Anamaria Marinca...Elena
Johns Simms...Daniel Appleton
Wendy Crewson...Madelaine Halsburgh
Chris Potter...Tom Harlsburgh
Maria Popistasu...Vara
Luke Kirby...Callum Tate
Robert Joy...Major James Brooke

Coproduced by Britain's Channel 4 International andGrenada TV, and the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation.

Caution: nudity, coarse language, and realistic violence.

Clearly influenced by Traffic, the four-hour film follows a small army of characters whose lives become tangled in various ways, as we view the complex cirumstances surrounding the trafficking in women from eastern Europe. We meet Elena and Vara, two young sisters from a Maldovan village who seek a better life. They end up sold, raped and beaten, owned by some of the most brutal lowlifes imaginable, and forced into prostitution. For the most part, crudely misogynistic men run the trade, but we also see women for whom western-style success means working as pimps, rather than whores. Evil takes many forms. So, fortunately, does heroism. A hefty lawman from the sisters' village learns that their sponsors to the west are not what they claim to be. He searches for the missing girls, and for justice. The girls themselves show terrible courage, as when Elena re-enters the trade in order to find her sister.

We meet Tom Harlsburgh, an executive for an American defence company who realizes that some of his employees may be involved in the trafficking of girls, but feels that he cannot address the problem. The negative publicity would certainly affect profits; it has the potential to destroy the business entirely. His wife, Madelaine, heads the organization's Charity Foundation. The foundation funds shelters that assist those trying to escape the trade. Gradually, Madelaine realizes that her husband and his associates may be complicit by their inaction.

We meet Daniel Appleton, who works for an agency monitoring abuses in former Soviet countries. He learns more than he can prove, and finds himself torn between revealing the truth and losing his job, or keeping silent. Meanwhile, his very investigation of the problem makes him suspect.

A stolen videotape connects several of these stories; its contents prove the complicity of security officers in the trade. The thief is Callum Tate, a Canadian officer dismissed after his efforts to save his Maldovan girlfriend led to a charge of consorting with prostitutes. She dies. He must abandon all hope of a career in law enforcement.

He has little left to lose.

Sex Traffic delivers real suspense. In this gritty world, the outcome for all characters remains in doubt.

Yes, the film has sensationalistic elements, but the subject matter makes this inevitable. These things are happening. Subtlety does not suit this story.

The film's best performance comes from Anamaria Marinca, a Romanian actress before the camera for the first time as the strong-willed but naïve Elena. Her complex character, desparate, brave and foolhardy, damaged and flirtatious, will likely remain with viewers for some time.

Sex Traffic is not flawless. The girls have been encouraged to lie about their ages, to make themselves younger and more appealing to certain customers-- but the show confirms that many of them are indeed teenagers. The decision, in so grittily realistic a production, baffles me. Obviously, the actresses are in their 20s. Why not just make their characters that age? It's not as though women that age don't end up in this situation, and it's not measurably less shocking or depressing to see. Fortunately, Sex Traffic rarely raises the issue of age, and viewers can ignore it.

Director David Yates uses shoulder-mounted cameras, abrupt cuts within scenes, and, occasionally, nightvision and grainy videotape, techniques associated with the evening news and the documentary. A good portion of the film takes place in dark, worn locations, entirely lacking in glamour. The film's regular darkness occasionally gives way to scenes of wealthy executives in well-lit places, but moral murkiness lurks everywhere.

Fortunately, the film also knows how to hope.

In Sex Traffic, we see justice taking small steps. The pimp who beats Elena in the street eventually gets arrested; his steel-toed boots slip on the ice beneath his feet as he tries to flee. News coverage forces Tom Harlsburgh to makes a shocked, indignant public statement about his company's dismay at discovering employees involved in trafficking human chattel. He promises a full investigation. Harlsburgh has a politician's poise and sincerity before the camera. Away from the public gaze, he comes across as pathetic, a coward who makes empty threats to get his way. His wife, meanwhile, leaves him; he stands alienated from his children, possibly forever.2

The film closes in London, England. A police officer whose sincerity is not a pose, a man whose job must feel like a repeated knocking of his head against a wall, patiently monitors the pimps and slave traders on a twenty-first century street.

The image fades.

1. An odd footnote: In Canada, the show played with all of its nudity and brutal violence intact. However, in a nation where The Sopranos has played commercial television, the CBC edited the swearing.

2. At least, from his son, whose rebel posturing now appears justified. We learn even less about his daughter; her princess-like life exists more as a contrast to the prostitutes' lot. However, she has chosen to stay with her mother.

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