The cool hand of Canadian writer-director Jeremy Podeswa proves a disappointing match for “Fugitive Pieces,” a generally dull and unmemorable adaptation of Anne Michaels’ extraordinary prose-poetry novel. Account of a Jewish boy’s survival during the Holocaust, care of a doting Greek archaeologist, and his subsequent troubled adulthood becomes a belabored pattern of flashbacks and flash-forwards onscreen. Great literature is often not the friend of film adapters, and this Toronto fest opener proves the rule, unlikely to draw many beyond the novel’s passionate readership and signaling a tepid start for producer Robert Lantos’ new Maximum Films distrib initiative in Canada.
Although Michaels’ novel is a stunning performance in lyrical prose, the core narrative is more than enough to sustain a mainstream film, containing elements of survival, love and remembrance that recall both book and film versions of “The English Patient.” Pic should at the very least trigger some tears, but Podeswa (“The Five Senses,” “Eclipse”) treats matters with too much distance and opts for a fairly obvious editing approach (with editor Wiebke von Carolsfeld) that keeps things further at bay.
Opening passages, set in Biskupin, Poland, promise a more intense experience. From his hiding place in his humble family abode, little Jakob (Robbie Kay) watches as his poor Jewish parents and sister Bella (Nina Dobrev) are murdered or dragged away by an invading Nazi army, and then flees into the nearby woods. Though it’s barely explained until much later, archaeologist Athos (Rade Sherbedgia), leading a dig in the area, spots Jakob hiding and secrets him back to his Greek island home for the war’s duration.
Paralleling this story are adult Jakob’s (Stephen Dillane) personal struggles with his Holocaust ghosts. Jakob is now a writer and married to Alex (Rosamund Pike), a lively, upbeat presence who couldn’t be more different from the dour, mood-killing Jakob. Pic never recovers from the early impression that its protag, from all outward appearances, including Dillane’s perf, has the vitality of curling wallpaper.
As both child and adult, Jakob is haunted by his memories of Bella, delivered via a series of brief, carefully composed snippets that never reach full dramatic satisfaction. Other remembrances include Jakob’s move with Athos from Greece to Toronto after the war, where Jakob meets neighbors who are also Jewish immigrants. Jakob watches his neighbor’s son, Ben (Ed Stoppard), grow up into a bookish lad, much as Athos was able to watch Jakob develop into a full-fledged author.
“Fugitive Pieces” draws all of these connections, but the complete picture is remarkably bland, given the tragic undercurrents. Not even the late entrance of Ben’s lovely friend Michaela (Ayelet Zurer), clearly intended to finally draw Jakob out of his shell, is enough to bring the film fully to life.
Podeswa encourages the same dampened approach from his actors, particularly with Dillane and Sherbedgia. Dillane’s Jakob projects intelligence to burn, but struggles to reveal the inner demons that eat at him in the dark of night. Denied his usually electric irony and caustic wit, Sherbedgia must remain in such a kindly frame of mind that it neglects this fine actor’s natural resources. Other perfs are suitable but unremarkable.
Handsome production elements are very much in line with Podeswa’s previous work, though ample location shooting in Greece (supported by lenser Gregory Middleton and production designer Matthew Davies) threatens to resemble a series of postcards.