Canadian poet Anne Michaels' beautiful 1996 novel, Fugitive Pieces — about a Jewish writer immobilized by the memory of his Polish family's murder at the hands of the Nazis — distills tragedy into grief, terror, and a wary romance built on the redemptive power of love and art, and set on a wildly picturesque Greek island. So far, so very cinematic.
But Fugitive Pieces is also a deeply researched excavation into history, at once intensely cerebral and lyrical, and Michaels writes in lush cadences that were made to be read or recited. Imagine the sentence "To live with ghosts requires solitude" on its way from page to screen, and you'll see why the novel is almost unfilmable — except, perhaps, by a lyrical impressionist like Theo Angelopoulos.
Canadian filmmaker Jeremy Podeswa has given it the old college try, but in pursuit of tact and sensitivity, he has hollowed out the novel's urgency — its unflinching confrontation with the horrors of 20th-century history — in favor of a vaguely spiritual morbidity that slides into mere pathos. Fugitive Pieces is filled with vaporous survivors too ethereal for this world. That's partly the point: Haunted by the ghosts of friends and family that can't be laid to rest, the living are shadows of their former selves. But Podeswa has them staggering around looking as though they've misplaced their Ex-Lax. As Jakob Beer, a writer so traumatized by his history and that of six million others that he can barely function, Stephen Dillane (a fine actor, if barely plausible as a Jew) has little to do but mope around in midcentury hair, looking generically pained.
Played as a child by elfin British actor Robbie Kay, Jakob witnesses — after a fashion — the death of his parents and the disappearance of his beloved sister, Bella (Nina Dobrev), a budding pianist. Escaping into the forest, Jakob is rescued by Athos (Rade Serbedzija), a Greek geologist nursing his own losses, who smuggles the boy out of Poland to the Greek island where — two wounded souls clinging together for dear life — they wait out the German occupation before moving to Toronto.
It's in that weathered city that they find comfort of sorts in the company of Yiddish-speaking neighbors who are also Holocaust survivors. When Athos dies, Jakob marries Alex (Rosamund Pike, a buffed and incongruously 21st-century blonde lovely), but she fails to grasp his sorrowful obsession with the details of Nazi crimes. For it's what Jakob hasn't seen that plagues him, whether it be his sister's unknown fate or that of the millions of other Jews who hid their testimony in the crevices of history and went to their deaths — spirits who hang around because no one has closed the book on their lives.
In the movie version of Fugitive Pieces, history is boiled down to mood and weather. Stolidly matching lighting with place — here's Poland in distressed blue and gray, Canada in rain-washed slate, Greece basted in gold or lashed by temperamental Mediterranean storms — the movie dithers along, tiptoeing tastefully in and out of flashback, in and out of explanatory voiceover. Even hanging laundry becomes a sacred act. That's not entirely Podeswa's fault: He's adapting rich prose that sometimes hovers on the border of precious itself, albeit always pulled back from the brink by the magnetic force of Michaels' running geological metaphor, an erudite meditation on the relationship between matter and spirit and the way the past layers itself into the present. Cutting out that meat, Podeswa leaves us with, of all things, a relationship movie about waiting for the right woman to come along.
When all seems lost, Michaela, an understanding scholar (played by the voluptuous Israeli actress Ayelet Zurer, last seen breathing heavily beneath Eric Bana in Munich), walks in to juice up Jakob's parched soul, and from then on it's billowing curtains, cheese and olives, and the promise of new life. Having grown up in an Israeli town populated by Holocaust survivors with fresh wounds, I'm not persuaded that a man who had weathered the kind of childhood hurt that Jakob suffered would be so easily or instantly saved, even by a lover as sympathetic as Michaela.
Michaels isn't fully convinced, either, for she begins her novel with a shock that subverts her own rosy ending. Significantly, Podeswa chooses to chop off this crucial pulling-out of hope's rug, leaving us instead with a glossy future plucked from a Harlequin assembly line.