Closing-credits photographs of WWII French refugees fleeing Nazi forces are the most poignant element of “Come What May,” whose fictional saga about townsfolk forced to abandon their homes, and two disparate men’s attempts to reunite with them, is a respectable but dully melodramatic affair. Director Christian Carion’s first feature since 2009’s “Farewell” is bolstered by a sweeping Ennio Morricone score, yet his narrative is too episodic, and his characters too one-dimensional, to carry the weight of grand historical tragedy, resulting in a picturesque, middle-of-the-road effort unlikely to entice anyone outside the art-house crowd.
Aside from some bumpy early edits which leave its setup a bit rushed and muddled, “Come Way May” lucidly lays out its basic premise: Having escaped their native Germany in 1939, anti-Nazi activist Hans (August Diehl) and young son Max (Joshio Marlon) take refuge in the northern French village of Pas-de-Calais, where Hans is soon arrested and thrown in jail on suspicion of being a spy. Max thus winds up in the care of local teacher Suzanne (Alice Isaaz), whose benevolent care is a godsend once mayor Paul (Olivier Gourmet) — with the invading Germans nearing their town by May 1940 — convinces the citizenry to uproot themselves and venture south to safer pastures.
During the Germans’ bombing of nearby Arras, Hans escapes confinement, and almost immediately falls in with Scottish soldier Percy (Matthew Rhys), whose entire regiment is promptly gunned down. Together, they endeavor to travel to Pas-de-Calais to find Hans, leaving “Come What May” structured as two concurrent storylines running, staggered, on the same track. Carion shifts between his focal points with reasonable deftness, and his widescreen visuals are competent if marked by mawkish flourishes (such as heavenly light pouring through dark clouds). Nonetheless, his script (co-written by Laure Irrmann and Andrew Bampfield) soon proves more concerned with standalone quick-hit melodramatic incidents than with developing his character’s internal conditions, or providing any larger sense of the refugee crisis engulfing France.
Hans leaves notes for his father on village blackboards to make sure he knows how to find him, Paul struggles to maintain authority over his nomadic caravan, and Hans and Percy join up with a wine-loving local (Laurent Gerra) and are forced to combat a duo of nosy Nazi scouts — all events that are reasonably compelling in the moment but untethered to any meaningful commentary on heroism, sacrifice, altruism, nationalism, identity, or the plight of migrants (the last of which might have lent the action a contemporary timeliness). Although Diehl, Gourmet, and Rhys ably handle their roles, their characters’ one-trait-only construction leaves them with little to work with, thus putting the onus on Morricone’s lovely (if over-used) orchestral themes to imbue the material with depth of emotion.
While bloodied corpses and vile racism are a recurring presence throughout “Come What May,” the film is too schmaltzy to do more than feign putting its protagonists in real jeopardy, thereby neutering any true aura of danger. Even a German aerial attack on the refugees ends only with anonymous background players meeting their maker — a development that leaves the story feeling as phony as the terrible CGI employed to create those machine-gunning aircrafts.
A subplot involving a German filmmaker making propagandistic films about the Nazis’ conquest of France — only, at one point, to be stuck with black immigrants as stand-ins for the French army — seems poised to lead the film into thornier image-vs.-reality waters. Carion, however, turns out to be largely uninterested in digging beneath the surface of the horrors he depicts, using them (be it a family massacred in their cars, or the face of a dead child in a still-fresh grave) as mere embellishments for a feel-good fairy tale masquerading as a portrait of hardship and woe.