Ghetto Life

Polanski's heartfelt hymn to Polish suffering in WWII Warsaw

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DIRECTED BY Roman Polanski

STARRING Adrien Brody, Thomas Kretschmann

Opens January 24, Cert 15, 149 mins

This has the ingredients for a near-mythical masterpiece: a revered maverick director whose own Polish childhood was spent in the Krakow and Warsaw ghettos during World War II makes a very long, earnest, unsentimental epic about that place and period. The Pianist is beautifully, sparingly shot; it won the Palme D’Or at Cannes, and nobody, even now, invents interestingly askew camera angles like Polanski. Yet though you admire its class, and the conscious tempering of emotion he’s achieved, The Pianist is a tough watch. It can’t match Schindler’s List for range or heart-tugging, and while you know every point in it is a point well made, you itch for a hint of narrative adrenalin, or some coloured-in characters outside of Brody’s titular martyr.

Brody is magnificent, but with little support he’s asked to carry an awful lot. And his lot sure is awful: as Jewish concert pianist Wladyslaw Szpilman (on whose memoirs the film is based, and who died aged 88 in 2000), he escapes deportation to the camps but sees his family suffer dreadful atrocities. He’s hidden in the heart of the Warsaw ghetto (“the safest place possible”) by a sympathetic resistance, but flawed communication and general chaos mean he nearly starves. Szpilman’s a survivor, however, who lives on his wits, squatting in ruined hospitals, and later saved by the decency of a pensive German officer. Through his long purgatory he witnesses multiple bombings, shootings and acts of heroism and cowardice, usually from high vantage points which allow directorial flourishes. Somehow, Szpilman keeps his dignity, Brody conveying both resilience and helplessness with fierce-eyed force.

There’s much to applaud here?the message, obviously, the sepia quality of the light, and Polanski’s optical feints and swerves. If you’re looking for something as psychologically unsettling as Repulsion or Rosemary’s Baby, or as watertight as Chinatown, you won’t find it. Ronald Harwood’s script roofs some clunky lines, and a cast including Maureen Lipman and Frank Finlay wheezes through slight roles and slippery accents. It’s a stately, elegant film, deeply reliant on the melancholy of Chopin’s music. It’s not Polanski’s forte, though it’s unquestionably from his heart.


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