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The Burden on Those Left Behind

Fugitive Pieces (2008)

N. Nikolopoulos/Samuel Goldwyn Films

There is a certain air of familiarity surrounding “Fugitive Pieces,” which – thematically at least – treads similar ground to one of the year’s more successful releases, “The Reader.” Both films are based on much-lauded novels and concern a middle-aged, academic type coming to terms with a past which has been blighted, in some way, by Nazi atrocities. In “The Reader,” Ralph Fiennes played a lawyer mentally haunted by the woman who was his first love and the subsequent revelations of her true nature. Meanwhile in “Fugitive Pieces,” a writer named Jakob (Stephen Dillane) is obsessed with the fate of his older sister, who was seized by German soldiers and taken to an unknown but certainly tragic end.

Each film deals with the weight of memory and the overwhelming guilt resulting from a moment of inaction by the main character. Unfortunately, anything shared by the two films in terms of subject matter is not matched in equal cinematic merit. For whilst “The Reader” was generally first-rate and dramatically compelling, “Fugitive Pieces” rarely rises above the humdrum, coming across as far too worthy and ponderous to hold the viewer’s attention for any great length of time.

The story begins in wartime Poland, where the young Jakob (Robbie Kay) witnesses his family being dragged from their home by Nazi troops. Fleeing through the woods, the boy is discovered by Athos (Rade Sherbedgia), a kindly Greek archaeologist who risks his own life by harboring the boy and then smuggling him out of the country. The pair wait out the war on a Greek island, which would be idyllic were it not for the occupying German forces. Athos does his best to shield the traumatized Jakob from the acts of violent retribution committed upon the locals in the name of the Third Reich.

When liberation finally arrives, Athos is offered work in Canada and takes the young boy with him in pursuit of a new life. They spend the next two decades in a tenement building along with their Jewish neighbors who are themselves trying to come to terms not only with the horrors of the Holocaust, but the fact that they survived while so many of their friends and family perished.

These scenes are shown in flashback from the point of view of the older Jakob, now a successful writer who still suffers from a bad case of survivor’s guilt. It is this condition which leaves him unable to embrace the freedoms of the post-war age. He has a beautiful wife, Alex (Rosamund Pike), but is unable to open up to her emotionally or relate to any of her circle of supposedly cool friends (having seen them I can only sympathize).

Consequently, Jakob’s marriage falls apart, and he embarks on what a blurb writer might call an “emotional journey” back to Greece, taking with him the ashes of the late Athos. Both there and later in Canada, Jakob starts to assemble the pieces of his shattered memory through remembering the wisdom and sacrifice of Athos, and later, with the help of a new love, Naomi (Rachelle Lefevre). Gradually, he learns to be thankful for the lives of his family instead of just tormenting himself with the manner of their passing.

Overall, “Fugitive Pieces” is overtly sentimental and surprisingly bland considering the naturally emotive subject matter involved. There are moments, mainly in the scenes between the young Jakob and Athos, where the film does start to come to life. The relationship between the pair is enchanting thanks to very good performances from the actors involved, especially young Mr. Kay who, with his wonderfully expressive face, is quite the best thing in the film. One enjoys their time together on screen to the point that when the narrative returns to the older Jakob, one feels a profound sense of disappointment. There is nothing inherently wrong with the acting of Mr. Dillane or Ms. Pike, it is just that their characters are just much less interesting and their scenes inconsequential compared to the events shown in flashback.

The problem with the film may well stem from common hurdles experienced when adapting a novel for the screen, particularly one as seemingly emotional and metaphysical as this. When the adaptation process works, see David Hare’s screenplay for “The Reader,” the film should be able to stand on its own two feet and exist as a separate entity from its source material.

In the case of “Fugitive Pieces,” one gets the feeling that the cord between the book - by Canadian poet, Anne Michaels - and the film has not really been cut and that one is clearly watching something derived from another medium. This is not helped by an onscreen narration by Mr. Dillane where he sometimes appears to be just reading lines from the novel out loud. One comes away with the impression of having seen a potted version of something deeper and more profound. If you see the film then you may well wish you had read the book instead. In fact, perhaps you should.


Opens on May 29 in Britain.

Written and directed by Jeremy Podeswa; based on the novel by Anne Michaels; director of photography, Gregory Middleton; edited by Wiebke von Carolsfeld; music by Nikos Kypourgos; production designer, Matthew Davies; produced by Robert Lantos; released by Soda Pictures. Running time: 1 hour 44 minutes.

WITH: Stephen Dillane (Jakob), Rade Sherbedgia (Athos), Rosamund Pike (Alex), Ayelet Zurer (Michaela) and Robbie Kay (Young Jakob).


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