Fugitive Pieces

2008-12-12 12:34
Fugitive Pieces
What it’s about:

Jakob Beer (Stephen Dillane) witnessed his family’s murder at the hands of Nazis during WWII in Poland, and never fully healed from the experience. After being raised by archaeologist Athos Roussos (Rade Šerbedžija) who found him as a boy, he becomes a writer living between Canada and Greece. It is the story of a man learning to love, while being haunted by the ghosts of his past. Adapted from Anne Michaels' award-winning novel.

What we thought of it:

Certain novels are unfilmable – and Fugitive Pieces appears to fall into this category. Anne Michaels' first novel was a literary phenomenon; written by an acclaimed poet, it reads more like an extended piece of free-form poetry than our conventional idea of a novel. It’s heartbreaking and gut-wrenching and not really an enjoyable read – but it is an astoundingly beautiful one.

So how does one go about translating this finicky mélange of literature onto the screen? With difficulty. Of course, using a voiceover is the inevitable (if unimaginative) solution to revealing the inner monologue of Jakob. And voiced passages from his journal also explain some series of events. However, rather than adding to the poeticism of the film, the voiced elements just break the age-old "show, don’t tell" rule and add to the patchiness of the overall effect.

More of the patchwork-quilt effect is unavoidable. The film essentially deals with memory – the recollections of a man who has never recovered from watching his family die in the most brutal way while he hid in a hole in the wall. He lives the rest of his life in a similar state – watching the world unfold around him as he hides within himself, peeping out, yet never truly engaging with it.

A story pieced together from a handful of decades and three countries is sure to suffer from some disconnectedness. In this case, though, trying to cram so much into 104 minutes doesn’t give any of the beautiful vignettes the breathing space they deserve, and they sit apart from each other with only a common cast to hold it all together.

The casting is certainly a strong point, though. Dillane’s pitch-perfect turn as the introverted writer trying to unshackle himself from his ghosts stands out; as does Šerbedžija’s portrayal of Athos, the charismatic Greek archaeologist. Even so, they struggle to bring across the depth of their relationship in the abbreviated screentime allocated to them. Dillane and the female leads (Rosamund Pike, Ayelet Zurer) capture the touching moments of falling in love convincingly – but again, it would be nice to see the detailed picture rather than broad strokes.

I usually hate to engage in the book vs. movie debate – after all, they are entirely different art forms and should be judged independently as such. However, in this case, the film tries to lift all the best parts of the novel – its sprawling narrative, its deeply introspective passages, its evocative locations – and paste them up onto the screen, with only mixed success.

Maybe a less literal interpretation would have worked better. It’s certainly a brave attempt on the part of writer/director Jeremy Podeswa, but perhaps an overly ambitious one.

- Finn Gregory

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This patchy, sprawling coming of age story will likely draw less than favourable comparisons with the award-winning novel by Anne Michaels upon which it is based.

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