“Another Holocaust story?” might be an understandable reaction to “The Courageous Heart of Irena Sendler,” but that would do a disservice to this fine Hallmark Hall of Fame production. It’s hard to think, in fact, of a story possessing a more poignant connection to the next “send the very best” holiday — Mother’s Day — chronicling as it does Polish Jews who gave up their children in the face of the growing Nazi threat, and Christians who selflessly took them in. So yes, by all means, another Holocaust story, provided that it’s this true, gripping and unfamiliar.
Granted, the movie only sparingly touches upon the depth of the Nazi atrocities, and the evidence of them toward the end — brutal as it is — proves relatively tame in light of what transpired. Yet as directed by John Kent Harrison (who also co-wrote the adaptation of Anna Mieszkowskia’s biography), there’s persistent tension throughout the movie, with the constant danger of exposure.
Skipping introductions, Irena (Anna Paquin) is a Catholic social worker ministering to Poland’s Warsaw Ghetto in 1941, where the Jewish population has been sequestered. Realizing that the work camps to which Jews are being dispatched might be more sinister than the Germans are saying, she seizes upon the idea of sneaking Jewish children out and hiding them in plain sight by placing them with Christian families.
Working with others sympathetic to her cause, Irena helped smuggle out kids in crates and by whatever means available — creating an agonizing choice for parents in the Jewish community, forced to grapple with potentially sacrificing their children’s cultural identities in an effort to save their lives (before, it should be noted, many comprehended the horrifying extent of the Nazi’s plans). Toward that end, Irena is shown teaching children enough prayers to pass as Christian if questioned by the Gestapo.
As with “Schindler’s List,” this is another World War II tale of Christian heroism, with Irena’s efforts ultimately saving more than 2,500 children. Even in a slightly sanitized form, it’s edgier than most recent “Hallmark Hall of Fame” entries — with a powerful central performance by Paquin, if slightly underdeveloped parts for Marcia Gay Harden and Goran Visnjic as her mother and a former schoolmate, respectively.
Shot in Latvia (by cinematographer Jerzy Zielinski), the movie also does a meticulous job re-creating the era in a manner that looks every bit as bleak as it should. Hallmark has grown flabby at times lately, as evidenced by its last valentine, the Orthodox Judaism-themed “Loving Leah.” As flabby as that one was, “Irena Sendler” compensates for it by being taut, emotional and compelling.
Anna Paquin and Goran Visnjic star in Hallmark’s Holocaust drama ‘The Courageous Heart of Irena Sendler.’