A group of Jewish youngsters flees Nazi-occupied France in the inspired-by-fact WWII drama “Fanny’s Journey,” the third feature from director Lola Doillon (“In Your Hands,” “Just About Love”). The film is a handsome, compelling period piece that deftly portrays events through the eyes of its young protagonists. Nevertheless, despite committed performances from the small fry and one of spirited conviction from Cecile de France as the resourceful school mistress trying to spirit them to Switzerland, the end result comes off rather like the equivalent of old-fashioned, young adult fiction; everything really bad happens off-screen. Moreover, a surfeit of forced lyricism undermines the tale’s natural poignancy, signaling that Jewish festival slots and ancillary are more likely than theatrical play offshore.
In 1943, after their father’s arrest, the titular Fanny (feisty newcomer Léonie Souchaud) and her clingy younger sisters Erika (Fantine Harduin) and Georgette (Juliane Lepoureau) are taken by their mother to spend the war years in a boarding school in France’s neutral zone, a spot where Jewish children could keep a low profile. But the school isn’t a safe haven for long; the Jewish students are smuggled to another institution in the Italian zone just ahead of a German raid. Doillon shows that the youngest among them barely understand what is going on as they depart with a friendly wave to the priest who informed on them.
Under the care of the formidable, tough but tender Madame Forman (de France), Fanny, who is turning 13, is given a position of responsibility in the school’s kitchen, where she listens admiringly to the boasts of teen cook Elie (Victor Meutelet) about his participation in the Resistance. When Mussolini’s regime falls, Mme Forman realizes that it won’t be long before the Germans fill the void so she immediately plots a way to save her charges. She obtains false passports and forces the youngsters to learn their new names and backstories before dispatching them by train towards the Swiss border. De France is in her element here, serving up a tour de force performance that includes a dead faint to distract the attention of the station police.
En route, circumstances force the frightened Fanny to take a leadership position within the small group of eight who are traveling with her. Before disappearing from the story, Mme Forman wisely instructs her, “If you are scared, pretend otherwise for the sake of the others.” Doillon then ratchets up the tension as the nervous children make their way through a busy train station full of German soldiers and are eventually betrayed by a fellow traveler and held for several days without food or drink by gendarmes working with the Nazis.
As the kids eventually develop solidarity and the ability to work together, Doillon and co-writer Anne Peyregne can’t resist including several over-scored, Hallmark movie moments in which the youngsters frisk and play as if they weren’t really in the middle of fleeing for their lives. Also wince-worthy is some out-of-the-mouth-of-babes dialogue such as Georgette’s naïve question, “Why can’t we stop being Jews?” Despite this criticism, the narrative manages to bring an important period of history alive for the next generation even as the people who lived it are dying off. And the final moving scenes can’t help but provoke comparisons and discussions of what is now happening to immigrants at European borders.
Doillon, who displayed a strong rapport with adolescents in “Just About Love,” proves that she is an equally fine director of children, many of them non-professionals. She reportedly saw over 10,000 youngsters to choose her expressive performers.
While the entire cast acquits themselves well, the impressive, nuanced camerawork by Pierre Cottereau (who also recently shot Christian Carion’s WWII drama “Come What May”) is the film’s strongest technical asset. His perspective matches the children’s point of view and emphasizes their need to be out of sight through tight framing in claustrophobic spaces. The costumes strike a period look, but remain unbelievably clean and intact given the characters’ travails.