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A decade after its publication, Nicole Krauss’ best-selling novel The History of Love reaches the screen in a sprawling big-budget France-Canada co-production directed by Romanian-born Radu Mihaileanu. Ranging from prewar Poland to Chile and latter-day New York, the movie has something for everyone — and plenty to irritate, too. Neither art house, like most of Mihaileanu’s previous movies, nor mainstream storytelling, The History of Love casts its net wide and will need astute marketing to recoup its sizeable outlay, estimated at $20 million.
The voiceover to the pre-credit sequence — “Once upon a time there was a boy. He lived in a village that no longer exists” — hints at folk-tale simplicity. But things rapidly become more complicated as the story of the doomed love affair between shtetl sweethearts Leo Gurski (Mark Rendall) and Alma Mereminski (former Bond girl Gemma Arterton) unfolds. Alma is packed off to New York by her parents, aware of the growing threat from Nazi Germany. When Leo arrives on the scene a few years later, having survived the Nazi invasion, he has kept his promise of remaining true to Alma. But he finds that she, believing him dead, has married and has two children, one with her husband and one the fruit of her idyll with Leo. She extracts a promise from him not to reveal to the boy that he is his father.
Leo’s tribulations as a young man are recounted in parallel with those of his much older self, played by Derek Jacobi — the film’s present day is the year 2006 — an octogenarian and retired locksmith living in a cramped apartment in New York’s Chinatown, the former Lower East Side (he prides himself on being “the last Jew in Chinatown”}.
Another parallel strand tells the story of an adolescent girl, also called Alma (Sophie Nelisse), who lives in Brooklyn and yearns for a profound, unconditional love but is unable to believe in its possibility. She has earnest discussions on the nature of love with a young Russian-born immigrant called Misha (Alex Ozerov), to whom she is attracted but whose advances she rejects. She has a precocious 10-year-old brother, Bird (William Ainscough), so named because he once tried to fly out a window, who believes he is one of the Lamed Vav — the 36 Just Men who, according to the Talmud, keep the world on an even keel.
Meanwhile, her widowed mother Charlotte (Torri Higginson) has received a mysterious offer to translate from Spanish into English a novel titled The History of Love. We later learn that it was in reality written in Yiddish by Leo Gurski during his time in the shtetl but appropriated and published by one of his boyhood friends under his own name. Meanwhile, Leo’s son has grown up to become a successful writer.
If all this sounds unduly complex and difficult to follow, it is, and Mihaileanu himself has admitted as much. The doomed-love theme ramifies into a plethora of motifs including betrayal and loyalty, the binding nature of promises, the transmission of memory, survival, friendship and death. There are also graphic portrayals of the German advance into Poland and the programmed extermination of its Jewish population.
This thematic complexity may be a richness to some audiences, a headache to others. The same applies to the humor, embodied largely by Bird and by Bruno Leibovitch (Elliott Gould), the shtetl friend who also somehow survives (though a late revelation renders this problematic) and engages in long kvetching sessions with Leo that frequently veer into oy-vey arm-waving stereotype territory.
Overall, Mihaileanu’s direction is uneven and it’s tempting to speculate on what a filmmaker less intensely preoccupied with Jewish themes — such as Gravity director Alfonso Cuaron, who was initially slated to helm — might have made of it. The elements touching on the refugee experience are well-handled, in particular the arrival of a shipload of emigrants as they contemplate the 1940s New York skyline. However, the central relationship between Leo and his lost love never really resonates, and the most moving moment in the film comes in the closing stages when the narratives involving the older Leo and the younger Alma finally come together.
Production companies: 2.4.7 Films, Oï Oï Oï Productions
Cast: Derek Jacobi, Sophie Nelisse, Gemma Arterton, Elliott Gould, Mark Rendall, Torri Higginson, William Ainscough, Alex Ozerov
Director: Radu Mihaileanu
Screenwriters: Radu Mihaileanu, Marcia Romano, adapted from the novel by Nicole Krauss
Producers: Marc-Antoine Robert, Xavier Rigault, Radu Mihaileanu
Director of photography: Laurent Dailland
Production designer: Christian Niculescu
Costume designer: Viorica Petrovici
Editor: Ludo Troch
Music: Armand Amar
Sales: Wild Bunch
Not rated, 134 minutes
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