EmptyToronto International Film Festival
TORONTO -- "Fugitive Pieces" tackles familiar Holocaust themes but does so as a poetic ghost story that delves deeply into issues of loss and memory. The film from writer-director Jeremy Podeswa -- the son of a Holocaust survivor -- is based on the award-winning novel by Canadian poet Anne Michaels and largely takes place in the mind of a Jewish teacher and writer who can't shake memories of a terrifying childhood, where he saw from a hiding place in his house his parents murdered and a sister abducted by Nazi soldiers. This prevents him from living fully either in the present or the past, and they both run together in his head.
The film is an impressive and often quite moving tale of emotional entrapment that will connect with festival and specialty venue audiences. Veteran actor Stephen Dillane skillfully underplays the troubled character, giving him a placid surface beneath which you feel the horror, frustration and anguish churning ever more. He is a man cut off from life, unable to sustain a first marriage because, as he says, "to live with ghosts requires solitude."
Jakob Beer (Dillane) is haunted by images from one day and night in 1942 when World War II invaded his parents' comfortable cottage on the edge of a forest in Poland. He sees over and over the terror in the faces of his parents and sister. Jakob (played as a youngster by a wide-eyed though mostly mute Robbie Kay) sees the moment of his father's death and of his sister being dragged from the house.
That night, he flees and hides in the forest where a Greek archaeologist, Athos (Rade Sherbedgia), discovers him and decides to smuggle him out of Poland to his home on a Greek island. Both lives are saved by this impulsive act because days later the Germans overrun the archeological dig and killed everyone there.
But Jakob can't help but wonder down through the years, as Athos raises him and after the war moves him to Canada when Athos acquires a teaching position: What happened to his beautiful, piano-playing sister, Bella (Nina Dobrev)? What if he had stayed in the house? Might she have come back?
The ray of sunshine that is his first wife, Alex (Rosamund Pike), fails to penetrate his soul. He finds more solace with his Yiddish-speaking neighbors, who are also Holocaust survivors. Athos tries to reach him with pithy sayings and folk wisdom from the Old Country but it lacks the power of Jakob's ghosts. When Athos dies, Jakob returns to the Greek island to bury Athos' ashes and take solace in his writing, the only place where past and present can reflectively co-exist.
A friendship with his neighbor's son, Ben (Ed Stoppard), whom he has known since Ben's birth, leads to Jakob meeting Michaela (Israeli actress Ayelet Zurer) on one of his return trips to Canada, where he teaches. With a book written and his head in a different place, Jakob is ready for intimacy, ready to stop "hiding in my skin."
Podeswa lets time periods shift in a liquid-like flow of images, so Jakob's long-ago sister in Poland can sit on his bed in Canada or Jakob can revisit the happiness of his childhood home in dreams. The present day has little hold on the man-child who has changed his culture, language and his continent but is still always in Poland.
"Fugitive Pieces" is a slight film because it never ventures beyond the realm of ghosts and memory. All its characters are seen in the light of Jakob's personal obsessions. The minute life pulls them away, they move from this light.
Dillane -- with an assist from Kay as Jakob's younger self -- sustains sympathy because he asks for none. His portrait is of a man who has struggled and endured so much that he simply can't confront that which he finds trivial and mundane.
Sherbedgia plays a character of almost impossible goodness, but then, he is seen from the point of view of the child he rescues. His life apart from this is off camera.
Pike and Zurer are gloriously vibrant, again almost objects of desire and of salvation rather than characters with their own troubles and imperfections. This, finally, is the film's only weakness -- its inability to see beyond the short range of Jakob's vision and his ghosts. But within that range, "Fugitive Pieces" has a sharp, devastating story to tell.
Serendipity Point Films presents in association with Cinegram S.A./StradDa Produs.
Screenwriter-director: Jeremy Podeswa
Based on the novel by: Anne Michaels
Producer: Robert Lantos
Executive producers: Andras Hamori, Takis Veremis, Christina Ford, Mark Musselman
Director of photography: Gregory Middleton
Production designer: Matthew Davies
Costume designer: Anne Dixon
Music: Nikos Kypourgos
Editor: Wiebke von Carolsfeld
Jakob: Stephen Dillane
Athos: Rade Sherbedgia
Alex: Rosamund Pike
Michaela: Ayelet Zurer
Young Jakob: Robbie Kay
Ben: Ed Stoppard
Naomi: Rachelle Lefevre
Running time -- 108 minutes
No MPAA rating