British helmer Sally Potter, who leapt to critical attention with her 1992 adaptation of Virginia Woolf’s “Orlando” and got mixed reviews for “The Tango Lesson,” makes a serious misstep with “The Man Who Cried,” a beaucoup-vu drama about a displaced Russian Jewish girl searching for her roots in pre-war Paris, in the midst of other survivors of history. This expensive-looking British-French effort should do most of its business on takeoff, before unenthusiastic word of mouth clips its wings and it lands on the small screen.
Aiming for an iconic, timeless look, pic ends up resembling nothing so much as old Hollywood stereotypes about Europe between the wars, with its glittering theaters, happy Gypsies, pogroms and Holocaust.
A top-drawer, mostly U.S. cast lead by Christina Ricci is forced to play this cosmopolitan story in distressingly improbable English, dressed up with an assortment of accents. All this might be secondary if film succeeded in delivering an emotional payoff springing from historical tragedy, as it clearly intends. But moments of authentic emotion are scarce in Potter’s cliche-driven script.
The most convincing part of the picture is the sober opening in a Jewish village in 1927 Russia, where little Fegele Abramovitch (the gravely touching Claudia Lander-Duke) lives with her father (Russian thesp Oleg Yankovsky), a loving dad and rich-voiced singer. He takes off for America, planning to send for his family later, but Hitler’s army comes to town first, and Fegele is lucky to escape to England.
The desaturated colors and Lander-Duke’s melancholy seriousness anticipate the pogrom. Concentrating on the visuals and keeping dialogue to a bare minimum, Potter conveys a physical feeling for the place and people, which is not seen again in the film.
Adopted by a prim British couple, Fegele is re-christened Suzie and stripped of her ethnic identity. Growing up into a silent young woman (Ricci), the musical Suzie miraculously lands a job in a Parisian chorus line. As she bids a cold farewell to her adoptive parents, they hand her a childhood photo of her father. At last Suzie knows who she is and what she must do: go to America and find him.
In Paris, she shares her garret with a gold-digging Russian chorus girl named Lola (Cate Blanchett). Blanchett’s malicious sparkle creeps through her throaty Russian accent, enlivening the role, but the character feels uncomfortably like the modern stereotype of the beautiful blond Russian who uses her body to flee poverty for the West. In contrast, Ricci is handed the familiar role of the quietly dignified girl in the plain dress, whose inborn high principles and true worth will one day be rewarded.
Lola sets her sights on a swaggering Italian opera tenor, Dante Dominio (John Turturro in a hammy parody of his own, much more nuanced “Illuminata”); he gets the two girls jobs as extras in the opera company of mild-mannered entrepreneur Felix Perlman (Harry Dean Stanton). Suzie falls for a dark, handsome horse handler, Cesar (a silently smoldering Johnny Depp), who lives in a camp set up in a picturesque city square. There the Jewish Suzie feels at home singing opera arias accompanied by Gypsy violins. Then the Nazis invade Paris, and it’s time for the characters to move on to their date with destiny.
The chemistry between Depp and Ricci, already tried out in Tim Burton’s “Sleepy Hollow,” remains pretty much on paper here, particularly in their overwritten farewell scene.
One wishes Potter had concentrated more on the visuals, which occasionally hold delightful surprises, like a fleeting glimpse of three Gypsy horsemen showing off for Suzie in nighttime Paris. Sacha Vierny’s camerawork is beautiful, gradually increasing the color saturation.
But in general, the 1939 pre-war atmosphere proves elusive. Osvaldo Golijov’s original score blends smoothly with a broad selection of popular opera tunes.