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Movie Review

In 'Fugitive,' a survivor's story that's a little too pretty

Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Wesley Morris
Globe Staff / May 9, 2008

"Fugitive Pieces" is a politely made drama about a dull writer named Jakob (Stephen Dillane) and the sad, nervous boy (Robbie Kay) he used to be. The Nazis assassinated Jakob's Polish family during the Holocaust, and he winds up in the loving custody of Athos (Rade Serbedzija), an archeologist who rears him first in his native Greece, then in Toronto.

The movie oscillates between the present, where Jakob remains taciturn but consumed enough with his own personal history that he alienates his wife (Rosamund Pike), and the past, where the excellent character actor Serbedzija gives a moving, charismatic performance. He's the sort of silver fox Hollywood would have gone for 50 years ago, but in today's climate that accent (he's a Croat) has left him with an American resume riddled with kooks and villains.

If only the rest of "Fugitive Pieces" were as wise and alive as Serbedzija is. The Canadian writer and director Jeremy Podeswa adapted the film from Anne Michaels's 1997 novel. Podeswa has made a name directing dramas for cable (you name it, he's worked on it), and he gives this episodic feature some perfectly fluid transitions but not much soul. The whole movie feels refrigerated, and the structure actually disserves whatever efforts Dillane makes to keep us from noticing how miscast he is. Jumping back and forth the way the film does only turns a complicated, traumatized man into a passive cipher.

Where we need character development we get more trips back in time and more narrated ruminations. Greater exposure to Jakob's personality, however staid, would help, and the purplish narration doesn't quite cut it. For example: "I know fragments of what I can contain. Salt. Olives. Vine leaves. Sea foam. A life spanning two wars and one love. . . . When a man dies his secrets bond like crystals."

The movie does offer intriguing, perceptive glimpses of the everyday difficulties of being both a survivor and the child of a survivor. In Canada, Jakob befriends the family across the hall from the apartment he and Athos share. The father, a survivor, erupts over little things his son innocently takes for granted, such as the choice to leave food uneaten.

But Podeswa becomes incongruously fascinated by the bourgeois trappings of Jakob's adult life. The character sells a memoir and bounces between Toronto and a lovely seaside house in Greece. When another woman comes his way, the character finally gets to express himself sexually and emotionally. By this point, though, "Fugitive Pieces" already feels less like a redemptive survivor's story and more like a commercial for some terrific Mediterranean resort. Should I be coveting the tables, chairs, and real estate in a movie like this? It's hard not to when the film itself resembles such a tasteful piece of furniture.

Wesley Morris can be reached at wmorris@globe.com. For more on movies, go to boston.com/ae/movies/blog.

Fugitive Pieces

Directed by: Jeremy Podeswa

Written by: Podeswa, adapted from the novel by Anne Michaels

Starring: Stephen Dillane, Rosamund Pike, Robbie Kay, and Rade Serbedzija

At: Harvard Square, West Newton

Running time: 104 minutes

In English, and in Yiddish and Greek with subtitles

Rated: R (scenes of violence at the hands of Nazis and some tastefully photographed sex scenes)

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