The Courageous Heart of Irena Sendler -- TV Review

"The Courageous Heart of Irena Sendler," the 236th (!) presentation from the Hallmark Hall of Fame, is as unfortunately as on-the-nose as its title, recounting in two tidy hours the plight of a woman whose actions saved the lives of more than 2,000 Jewish children during the Holocaust. It's not that the telefilm is necessarily bad; it's that co-writer and director John Kent Harrison only occasionally manages to imbue the story with the requisite tension and emotional strife deserving of one of the darkest chapters in history. There are a few harrowing moments that skillfully bring home the human and emotional cost of the war, but mostly the TV movie plays like too many other things we've seen before.

Irena Sendler (Anna Paquin) is a social worker for the city of Warsaw, Poland, in 1941. She freely comes and goes between the city and the ghetto that the Nazis have established for local Jews, bringing clothes and food to friends who have been quarantined by the Germans. Paquin is competent in the role and believable in her charity, but she's not given much to work with. Harrison is rightly enamored of Sendler's selfless acts -- the woman was nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize in 2007 -- but he and co-writer Lawrence John Spagnola don't provide enough intellectual context for the character to address what drives her to risk her life to save others. Her compassion here is simply a force of nature, and though that makers her story commendable, it doesn't always make the film watchable.

The straightforward narrative charts Irena's work with those trapped in the ghetto and her efforts to help families there find adoptive homes on the outside for their children. She's aided in her quest by Stefan (Goran Visnjic), an old friend from university who's connected to the Polish underground. (However, it's a little tough to buy that they're old flames given the 10-year age discrepancy between Paquin and Visnjic.) The bulk of the film unfolds with surprisingly little drama given its potentially stirring backdrop: Irena smuggles more and more children out to safety, despite the growing suspicions and increased presence of the Nazis patrolling the ghetto. When they outlaw social workers, she procures a fake ID and nurse's uniform and keeps going like nothing has changed. Her commitment and determination would be fascinating had the character been given more depth.

The most compelling moments in the telefilm -- and there are sadly few -- are the ones that break the mold of modern war dramas and create human moments different from what's usually seen. The best of these is a sequence in which Jews are being evacuated from their buildings and marched to the train station to be deported to work camps, and a group of children, not knowing any better, sing a playful song as they walk. It's a shocking juxtaposition of the banal and the horrific, and in that moment Harrison exposes the grief and true terror of what happened to so many of these people. Sadly, the rest of the film falls short, coasting on its premise instead of following through with delivery. It's a shame, too. There's a good story in here; it just needed a better teller.

Airdate: 9-11 p.m. Sunday, April 19 (CBS)
Cast: Anna Paquin, Goran Visnjic, Marcia Gay Harden, Michelle Dockery, Danuta Stenka, Rebecca Windheim, Sergei Marchenko, Paul Freeman, Leigh Lawson
Production companies: Jeff Most/Jeff Rice Prods., Hallmark Hall of Fame Prods.
Executive producers: Jeff Rice, Jeff Most, Brent Shields
Writers: John Kent Harrison, Lawrence John Spagnola
Based on the book: "The Mother of the Holocaust Children" by: Anna Mieszkowska
Director: John Kent Harrison
Director of photography: Jerzy Zielinski
Production designer: Waldemar Kalinowski
Editors: Henk Van Eeghen
Casting: Denise Chamian, Priscilla John (U.K.)
Music: Jan A.P. Kazcmarek