What a strange collection of players we have here. Showtime’s “Varian’s War” is exec produced by Edward Wessex, better known as Prince Charles’ brother, and another type of royalty in Barbra Streisand. What they’ve come up with is a quality offering that turns an unheralded figure into a cinematic hero, a good — but could have been great — story about an American intellectual who in unlikely fashion helped prominent artists escape Vichy France.
William Hurt, who plays cryptic and offbeat figures with striking ease, portrays Varian Fry, an editor for a foreign affairs publication who, after witnessing Kristallnacht first-hand, decides it’s his responsibility to engage in a rescue operation. This was in the late ’30s, while America expressed neutrality to the European fighting and everyone thought Germany would simply continue to have its way.
Fry is an unlikely figure for such a task, since he comes across as an effete and ineffectual personage — even his sexuality is subtly questioned. What’s clever about director Lionel Chetwynd’s teleplay and Hurt’s performance is that they capture the way Fry used this perception to his advantage, evading the watchful eyes of the French and German authorities by engaging them with a foppish front.
After raising money from his upper-class cohorts in New York, and after receiving help from Eleanor Roosevelt to get a visa, Fry heads off to unoccupied Marseilles, where he finds that unoccupied doesn’t have to mean unaffected. He immediately discovers that there are no secrets in Marseilles, and that his initial plan to do things on the up-and-up just won’t accomplish his desired aim — to rescue the French and German artists and intellectuals who form the soul of Western civilization. Many, including Marc Chagall and Hannah Arendt, have made their way to Marseilles but are not allowed to leave the country, and are at constant risk of being handed over to the Nazis.
With the assistance of sharp American compatriot Miriam Davenport (Julia Ormond) and several French schemers, Fry plots to lead the group of figures on his list (Schindler, anyone?) to safety.
Chetwynd, with the help of lenser Daniel Jobin and production designer Raymond Dupuis, does a strong job of creating the paranoid feeling of WWII France. His atmospheric model is clearly “Casablanca,” where everybody is watching everybody else.
The storytelling doesn’t proceed with enough sharp clarity, however, to give it the excitement that seems inherent in the tale. “Varian’s War” tries unsuccessfully to become a riveting escape story, but it doesn’t lay out its suspenseful moments convincingly, and even the music and editing seem uncomfortably forced whenever Chetwynd tries to inject real drama.
It’s better as a character study, and the scenes where Fry puts on his “Who me?” act to his antagonists provide Chetwynd with his bread and butter, the quieter scenes of political intrigue. But even here, the piece avoids rather strenuously questioning the snobbishness that places some people’s lives, artists in particular, over others, and therefore never emerges as a deeper contemplation on the Holocaust. To make matters worse, the artists themselves are depicted with a touch of buffoonishness.
On a side note, if politics indeed make strange bedfellows, then Democrat maximus Streisand’s decision to hire staunch Republican Chetwynd must have made for some very interesting script sessions.