Reviews - Fugitive Pieces
Reviewed By John Stakes
Films depicting the plight of the Jewish population in Europe during WW2 tend to adopt a formalised approach bordering on documentary suffused with a level of gravitas befitting such a harrowing theme. The genre demands total honesty, rigorous accuracy and the complete absence of sentimentality.
Some of Poland’s finest films have emanated from this source material and two of its film makers Wajda and Polanski rank alongside the best in the world. Podeswa will have been well aware of the mantle he was assuming when planning this film which apparently took the best part of seven years to complete.
But Podeswa was faced with two additional burdens. The poetic prose style of the novel did not lend itself to being adapted as a screenplay. And crucially, how would he tackle the problem of depicting the horrors which here were locked in the mind of a child? In other words how would he externalise this inner turmoil in a way which would engage a cinema audience? There have been many examples in which the task has been met, “Remains of the Day” being one but Podeswa’s film was not another.
For this reviewer Podeswa’s best efforts fell far short of what was required even assuming such a task was here achievable which is doubtful. The surface story was straightforward enough. In 1942 Jakob Beer, a Polish boy, witnesses the murder of his Jewish parents and sees his adored older sister dragged off to an uncertain future. He is found hiding by a Greek architect (Athos Roussos) whose team is later also slaughtered by the Germans. Athos manages to smuggle the boy to Greece (Lesbos being chosen as the location).The boy refuses to venture outdoors and rarely speaks. At the end of the war Athos is offered a teaching post in Canada and takes Jakob with him.
On reaching adulthood Jakob becomes a teacher and fledgling writer. He tries to begin to understand and come to terms with his early childhood by committing his thoughts to paper. His haunted past inhibits his ability to achieve emotional maturity. In what appears to be his first forage into relationship making with the opposite sex, he marries a student he meets who finds his jottings which reveal his inability to accept the Canadian way of life and his feeling that those around him are valueless. She promptly packs her bags and leaves him.
Years later at a private dinner party he is introduced to a female museum curator whom he falls for and through whom he is able to see himself in a different light and reconcile himself with his past (the metaphor “miracle” of the twin properties of wood - it burns – it floats being referenced several times during the film).
Podeswa tried to present these events in two ways. First he had Stephen Dillane ( the older Jakob ) intoning in voice-over mode from extracts of the book which at least gave us some tasters of the book’s rich prose but from this lofty position could not replicate the events on the ground. Then he presented the cinematography in slow, languid art-house fashion which was a brave attempt to match the book’s lyrical qualities but came across with all the clout of a style magazine. The cast (with the exception of Rosamund Pike) were required to do far too much posing and posturing. For example the later love of Jakob’s life was asked to do no more than look the intelligent beauty she was, lounge around half-dressed, and smile a lot.
Podeswa was also let down by a screenplay which did not penetrate below the surface of Jakob’s everyday existence. The dialogue was cliché-ridden and banal at times. It was as if an audio book were competing with a wish you were here travelogue. We followed Jakob’s doleful face as he tripped twixt idyllic looking Greek landscape and a rather grey, drab Toronto but to little illuminating effect. The whole exercise was conducted at a plodding pace and the tinkling piano score became tiresome as it merely reflected the absence of on screen emotion. Jakob was looking for himself: if only he could have found some drama in the meantime.
Clearly however, another large audience found much more to savour in the film than this reviewer and voted it amongst the most popular of the season!
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