Like the Eurozone itself, helmer Tony Krawitz’s first full-length fiction feature “Dead Europe” struggles to cohere into a convincing whole, despite sections of commanding authority. Adapted from a provocative novel by Oz writer Christos Tsiolkas, this dose of arthouse angst with a gothic garnish features an appropriate culture-clash of acting styles and some confrontational set pieces, but falls short of delivering on its challenging ambitions. Nevertheless, despite crucial structural flaws, the Antipodean-Blighty co-production is adept and meaty enough to have Euro commercial appeal. Fest slots are assured.
Though the narrative spends most of its time zig-zagging across the titular continent, the pic begins in 1990s Melbourne, where gay Australian-born photographer Isaac Raftis (Ewan Leslie) watches his alcoholic Greek father Vassili (William Zappa) blow a gasket in response to Isaac’s latest photo exhibition. Literally chewing the scenery, dad takes a mouthful of dirt, spits it out with a prayer, and speeds off in his car to a certain death.
A short time after, Isaac ignoring protests from his mother (Eugenia Fragos) about a European-sourced curse, resolves, on his first trip to the Continent, to deliver his father’s ashes to the family’s Greek ancestral village. En route, while cruising for photo ops and gay sex in Athens, he encounters teenage waif Josef (Kodi Smit-McPhee) who escorts Isaac back to a slum where he lives with a heroin-addicted prostitute (Theodora Tzimou). Having insufficient film to take their photos, Isaac promises Josef he will soon come back. Waylaid by a political riot, Isaac returns only to be told by neighbors, in the pic’s baldest, if still ambiguous flirtation with the supernatural, that Josef and the woman left “long ago.”
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Back with his Athenian relatives, Isaac is angered by their suggestion that his father’s hatred of Fascism wasn’t the real reason he emigrated to Australia. After casting dad’s ashes from a rural Greek mountaintop, Isaac moves on to Paris and then Budapest. Throughout the remainder of his stygian European travels, he sees the haunting face of Josef everywhere.
Condensing Tsiolkas’ sprawling, episodic book, Louise Fox’s script expertly eliminates peripheral characters and leavens early scenes with forthright humor. Her most astute adjustment is to borrow a character from the book to create damned brother Nico (Marton Csokas), who is caught in Budapest’s decadent underbelly, and acts as Isaac’s darker fraternal reflection.
However, the script also shorthands the novel’s inciting event: The beginning of the curse on Isaac’s family, which relates to the fate of a Jewish boy during WWII, is relegated to dialogue only. As a result when anti-Semitism erupts onscreen and is thematically linked to Europe’s contempo refugee problems, the issue feels forced, like a narrative add-on rather than the story’s engine. From this thematic point onward, scenes seem to recurrently plunge into hysteria-tinged dialogue rather than taking time to let tension build.
Leslie’s performance feels strongest when establishing Isaac as a bold, gay provocateur who imbibes any party drug within grasp. The thesp is less convincing when events spiral out of Isaac’s control, making his character appear naive rather than psychologically overwhelmed. The numerous supporting thesps are solid enough, but Greek actress Danae Skiadi is the most successful at creating character depth.
The helming of Krawitz (following up on the father-son theme explored in his short “Jewboy,” which also starred Leslie) builds on the script’s explicit allusions to supernatural curses by employing occasional horror film techniques, such as lingering eerily in a scene to create a sense of unease. In a lesson for wobblecam acolytes, Krawitz uses the technique sparingly to amplify dread. Lensing by Germain McMicking (“The Tall Man,” “Hail”) is clear-eyed, keeping the pic grounded in reality. Sound design by Sam Petty also plays with horror techniques to augment Jed Kurzel’s somber and sinister score with loud and genuinely frightening bumps.
When it comes to exploiting the decadent opportunities supplied by Tsiolkas’ text, the helmer is more reticent. Scenes of gay sex and a homo/hetero threesome tend to cut to the chaste.