Working from an internationally acclaimed children’s novel by Uri Orlev, Danish filmmaker Soren Kragh-Jacobsen takes a fresh approach to a familiar subject in “The Island on Bird Street.” Wartime drama focuses on the adventures of a young Jewish boy who draws inspiration from his favorite novel, “Robinson Crusoe,” while hiding from Nazis in a deserted Polish ghetto. Some theatrical exposure is likely, but pic should find its biggest audience in global television markets.
An English-lingo, international co-production filmed in Poland and Germany, “Island” features British-born newcomer Jordan Kiziuk in the lead role of Alex, author Orlev’s autobiographical alter ego. The resourceful 11-year-old boy must fend for himself when his father and grand-uncle are rounded up, along with almost every other resident of the ghetto, and shipped off to a concentration camp. Alex elects to remain in the ghetto, all the while risking discovery by Nazi patrols, after his father promises to return for him “no matter what happens.”
At first, the lead casting places serious strains on pic’s credibility. Kiziuk, who sounds unmistakably English, doesn’t even try to suggest an appropriate accent. By sharp contrast, American-born Jack Warden, briefly seen as the boy’s grand-uncle, effects a gruff Eastern European bluster. And Patrick Bergin, who plays Alex’s father, makes at least a token effort to sound, if not specifically Polish, then at last vaguely “foreign.”
After a while, however, Kiziuk establishes enough emotional verisimilitude to make his portrayal sufficiently persuasive. It also helps that, for long stretches of “Island,” he has no dialogue as Alex wanders through the deserted buildings or furtively observes the world outside the ghetto walls, accompanied only by his pet mouse. At times, Alex must scramble to avoid unwelcome visitors — looters, Nazi soldiers, other Jewish fugitives. Ultimately, he must use the gun his father left him to defend two Resistance fighters who take refuge in the ruins.
Kragh-Jacobsen structures the pic so that we view everything through Alex’s eyes. Bombed-out buildings and rubble-strewn courtyards appear as some eerie, otherworldly combination of playground and haunted house. At one point, Alex fashions a rope ladder to the second story of an apartment house that is no longer accessible by stairs.
Here and elsewhere, “Island” vividly conveys the notion that, even during a time of unimaginable stress and life-threatening danger, an imaginative child might actually enjoy his dire circumstances as the real-life equivalent of a storybook adventure. This may not be the most original plot concept in the world, but Kragh-Jacobsen is skillful at turning it into involving and suspenseful drama. Trouble is, pic may be too slow-paced to hold the interest of ticketbuyers who are roughly Alex’s age.
Cinematographer Ian Wilson (“Emma”), production designer Norbert Scherer and art director Alex Scherer do a first-rate job of grounding “Island” in a harsh reality that, through a child’s eyes, might somehow seem magical. Zbigniew Preisner contributes a spare but effective musical score.
Bergin and Warden are convincing in what amount to cameo roles. Other supporting players of note include James Bolam as a Polish doctor who’s unexpectedly sympathetic to Alex’s plight, and newcomer Sian Nicola Liquorish as a little girl who lives in a comfortable home on the other side of the ghetto wall.