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BBC Films released this fabulous movie on 13th Nov 2015 .
Alan Bennett’s story is based on the true story of Miss Shepherd (played by a magnificent Maggie Smith), a woman of uncertain origins who “temporarily” parked her van in Bennett’s London driveway and proceeded to live there for 15 years. What begins as a begrudged favor becomes a relationship that will change both their lives. Filmed on the street and in the house where Bennett and Miss Shepherd lived all those years, acclaimed director Nicholas Hytner reunites with iconic writer Alan Bennett (The Madness of King George, The History Boys) to bring this rare and touching portrait to the screen.
Review By James Southall on Wednesday January 6, 2016
Alan Bennett’s memoir The Lady in the Van concerns an old woman who asked to park outside his house temporarily and ended up staying for 15 years. He adapted it for the stage in 1999 where Nicholas Hytner directed Maggie Smith and has now written the screenplay for this movie adaptation, with the same director and star (and Alex Jennings playing Bennett himself). In his youth George Fenton was actually a budding actor and knew Bennett – and in a nice little coincidence, he met the lady in the van herself while he was helping Bennett redecorate his house. Decades later, he’s written the score for the film (as he has for all of Hytner’s previous ones).
It’s an unsurprisingly light-hearted affair, witty and elegant and completely charming, qualities all thoroughly encapsulated within the delightful main theme which opens the album, “Miss Shepherd’s Waltz”, a musical embodiment of the funny character at the centre of the story. It’s heard several times, the best and fullest arrangement coming right at the end in “The Ascension”. The second cue “Moving In” introduces a classical tinge with its lovely piano solos (the lady having been a classically trained pianist in her younger days); and the album features music by Chopin and Schubert in addition to Fenton’s score.
If you could imagine the musical embodiment of a dialogue between Alan Bennett and Maggie Smith then it’s pretty much this score. The comic flair is gently done for the most part with occasional exaggerated gestures through florid orchestral touches; and it’s all absolutely, steadfastly English. There are some touching moments too – consecutive tracks “In Care” and “The Neighbours” are just so lovely. There are darker moments – “Collision and Confession” in particular is very sad, with its hints of mental fragility; later “Curtains Down” is ominous and carries a touch of resignation about it. There’s a brief cue late on, “Freewheeling”, which momentarily takes the score back towards Fenton’s marvellous Valiantfrom a few years back (sadly it only lasts a few bars). The score’s finest moment comes towards the end in “A Sepulchre”, a beautiful piece for piano which plays as a touching tribute. The Lady in the Van really is a delightful little score which ought to bring a smile to anyone’s face – scoring comedy well, writing interesting music for it, is really hard and Fenton has pulled it off with aplomb here.
Two Academy Awards (out of six nominations), five BAFTAs, three Emmys, three Golden Globes, four Screen Actors Guild Awards, and a Tony. It’s exhausting just to list the accolades that Dame Maggie Smith has accumulated over her decades on screen and stage: Imagine how tiring it must have been to earn them all.
Yet at 82, Smith seems, if anything, more lively and ubiquitous than ever before. She’s appeared in 20 films over the past 15 years, notably as Minerva McGonagall, the benevolent headmistress of Harry Potter’s beloved Gryffindor House. And over the past five years she’s also won two Emmys (and been nominated for two more) for her portrait of Violet Crawley on Downton Abbey. It’s a schedule that might break a performer half her age.
For her latest feat, Smith rescues Nicholas Hytner’s filmThe Lady in the Van from the confectionery uplift that otherwise might have swallowed it. Smith plays Mary Shepherd—or, more accurately, someone who has chosen to go by the name “Mary Shepherd”—a real-life homeless woman who, for 15 years, parked her van in the driveway of the real-life playwright Alan Bennett (played here by Alex Jennings). It’s a role Smith has played twice before: in Bennett’s 1999 stage play of the same name (also directed by Hytner) and in a 2009 BBC radio production.
The story begins when Bennett moves into the bourgeois-boho London neighborhood of Camden Town in the early 1970s. (A typical exchange takes place with a neighbor played by Roger Allam: Bennett: “I’ve got a play on in the West End”; neighbor: “Of course you do.”) Shepherd is already a fixture on the block, moving her dilapidated van from curb to curb as needed. None of the resident families are particularly happy to have her park in front of their homes; but all feel ideologically bound not to complain. “That’s Camden,” one explains. “People wash up here.” Or as Bennett himself puts it, “They tolerate Ms. Shepherd, their consciences absolved by her presence.”
When I said Meryl Streep was at her best in the Iron Lady, I never thought she’d be doing the role of Violet Weston in August : Osage County.
Review By Tim Robey
A memorably bitter highlight in August: Osage Country, Tracy Letts’Pulitzer Prize-winning play, was the coruscating post-funeral lunch scene. This takes up maybe 25 minutes of screen time in the film, but you’ll be too busy wincing, guffawing and hiding behind your fingers to count them. The tone of this disastrous wake is set, as often, by Violet Weston (Meryl Streep), the malevolent, drug-addicted matriarch of her sizeable Oklahoma family, whose resentments against all three of her middle-aged daughters, as well as various other near and dear, get a thorough and unhinged airing.
Letts has adapted this himself, with John Wells (The Company Men) directing. At first, the film’s heading to be a mild disappointment. The scenes prior to this blazing centrepiece are muffled and rhythmically off, certainly compared with the play’s brilliant staging at the National Theatre, which lured you into this family’s myriad secrets and woes with a cosy largesse. It’s a weakness of the play that the men are much less interestingly drawn than the women, and not all the casting transcends this problem, even if Chris Cooper, as Violet’s brother-in-law, and Benedict Cumberbatch, as her nephew, have their affecting moments.
August: Osage County has no subtext to speak of; it’s all bellowed into your face. On Broadway, its Chicago actors knew how to modulate their performances and together build the tension, beat by beat. (Last year, Letts himself gave a master class in modulation as George in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?) But director John Wells fractures the action, jumping back and forth between stars in close-up yelling at one another in the style of a more profane Steel Magnolias. In stage adaptations, I prefer direction that’s less on-the-nose and more keyed to the ensemble, to the movement of actors in relation to one another in wider shots. I enjoyed much of it, but I could hear that old man in back of me saying, “No it’s not,” and I wondered if he’d been right. Wells dotes on his actors so much that he exposes the play’s contrivances.
I waited for a good movie to mention in my blog for quite a long time, After watching Dame Judi Denchs’ performance and the cinematic composition of a novel based on actual recent history I knew definitely “Philomena” is the move for 2013.\
Philomena is not only my favorite film of 2013, but one of the most eloquent, powerful and perfect movies I have ever seen. A focused and triumphant performance by the miraculous Judi Dench keeps the harrowing aspects of a great story in flawless balance, and every other aspect of this film works like a hypnotic charm. Sensitively and carefully directed by Stephen Frears and brilliantly written by co-star Steve Coogan and Jeff Pope, it’s a once-in-a-lifetime experience that deserves genuflection.
Ms. Dench gives a wrenching and deeply touching performance of feeling, wisdom and nuance without a trace of sentimental self-indulgence
in the title role of Philomena Lee, a survivor of the despicable Irish Catholic asylums loosely called convents operated by Magdalene nuns in the 1960s to punish wayward girls the church considered “sinners,” many of whom were unwed mothers shut away by their families to hide their shame. The dehumanizing emotional and sadistic physical abuse they suffered as victims of moral rectitude were chronicled in the lavishly praised 2002 film The Magdalene Sisters. This is about one of those victims, a spirited broth of a woman who spent 50 years searching for the son she was forced to give up for adoption without consent.
After decades of fruitless prayers, a chance meeting at a party brings Philomena’s grown daughter, a waitress, in contact with Martin Sixsmith (Steve Coogan), a disgraced political aide to Prime Minister Tony Blair now making a comeback as a journalist for the BBC. Ambivalent at first, he agrees to meet Philomena, and her arresting honesty and unpretentious wit intrigues him. The more he researches her story, the more intrigued he becomes by what became of Philomena’s child. A paper chase leads to America and shocking revelations in Washington, D.C.
For anyone who laments the death of compelling stories in the wake of all the gibberish that passes itself off as filmmaking today, Philomena will revive your faith in movies. Like an overpowering novel you cannot put down, this gripping real-life story allows you to share the journey, step by step, as Philomena, who still clings to her faith, and Martin, a lapsed Catholic and devoted atheist, leave no rock unturned in their search for answers. After the long trip to the old convent, where the young Philomena endured so much horror, the remaining nuns are still hard and unrepentant, telling her the records were destroyed in a fire. But they have a gift shop, where they sell souvenirs for a profit, and a cemetery, where so many of the former girls and their nameless babies are buried. (It’s a graveyard that plays a big role in solving Philomena’s mystery.) With her batteries newly recharged, the sweet, unsophisticated Irish woman named Philomena is beginning to see the light. The more she delves, the more she discovers about her lost child and herself. The convent sold a lot of babies to wealthy American customers. One of them was Hollywood star Jane Russell. I won’t spoil a film beyond reproach by revealing what Philomena finds out about her own little boy, but the facts that tumble out are as turbulent as they are startling. After all the clues are pieced together, the final explanation of what happened to the child—and the look on her face when she learns the truth—will tear your hear out.
Meanwhile, the cynical reporter and the innocent, religious naïf saved by unquenchable hope and indomitable spirit form an unlikely bond that leaves out no funny detail of their own mismatched friendship. Steve Coogan’s writing is a major revelation, bringing to life Martin Sixsmith’s 2009 book, The Lost Child of Philomena Lee, with great humanity and insight. He’s a great foil for the star, the salt in her stew. As for Ms. Dench, the beauty of her spectacular moment-to-moment performance will leave you hanging on the ropes. One of the heroic masters of the craft and artistry of acting, she melts you with her radiance. Mr. Frears, a wonderful director of actors, is careful to give her enough adequate space to feel her way around in. Whether she sheds a tear for other people’s pain or drives you crazy with her habit of repeating the endings of romance novels (“I didn’t see that one coming!” is one of her favorite lines), she is so natural, understated and generous that you are never aware there’s a camera in the room.
It’s profoundly moving and thoroughly mind provoking, but despite the poignant subject matter, I promise you will not leave Philomena depressed. I’ve seen it twice and felt exhilarated, informed, enriched, absorbed and optimistic both times. This is filmmaking at its most refined. I will probably forget most of what happened at the movies in 2013, but I will never forgetPhilomena.
WRITTEN BY: Steve Coogan and Jeff Pope
DIRECTED BY: Stephen Frears
STARRING: Judi Dench, Michelle Fairley and Steve Coogan
RUNNING TIME: 98 min.
The True Story : Real Philomena
Of all the movies made on the lives of political leaders this movie stands on a very tall pedestal as an astonishily crafted and presented film on the life of the longest served and only lady prime minister of Britain. Though it drew lots of controversy over depicting the poor stage of her health this fantastic creation deserve few oscars.
The back stabbings, plots that are intrinsic in Politics become magnified due to her sex. As the first and only woman Prime minister of UK she faced all the challenges in a manner admired even today. Meryl Streep’s best performance ever, won her the Best Actress Oscar award as well as Golden Globe Award for Best actress in the leading role for year 2011.
Meryl Streep gives a quite astonishing impersonation of Margaret Thatcher in this even-handed biopic about Britain’s longest-serving Prime Minister of the 20th Century. Abi Morgan’s well-constructed screenplay takes Thatcher from an eager 20-something in post-war Britain, played by Alexandra Roach, when the grocer’s daughter first entered politics through her controversial career – using plenty of newsreel footage – to her lonely old age in which she’s haunted by her late husband Denis, Jim Broadbent. The interesting thing about Phyllida Lloyd’s film is that Thatcher is neither idolised nor demonised; both her admirers and her opponents should be satisfied by this portrait of a powerful and determined woman.
At the Movies – ABC Margeret and David
“Virtuoso”, “translucent”, and “compelling” were among the words used by US movie critics this week to describe Streep’s turn as Britain’s polarising, and only female, prime minister.
“Is there anything that Meryl Streep can’t do as an actress? One can only marvel at her virtuoso performance as Britain’s Margaret Thatcher,” Rolling Stone reviewer Peter Travers said.
The Iron Lady features Streep playing Baroness Thatcher both as a rising politician and as a confused, elderly woman looking back on her 1979-90 period in office.
It is already on release in Australia but will not be in British cinemas until early in January.
Streep, 64, already has a record 16 Academy Award acting nominations. But she has won the Oscar only twice, for Kramer vs Kramer in 1979 and Sophie’s Choice in 1982.
Time magazine’s Richard Corliss called Streep’s performance “a triumph”; Leah Rozen, writing for TheWrap.com, said Streep was “astonishingly accurate in mimicking the look, voice, gait and mannerisms of her real life character.”
New York Magazine’s David Edelstein described the film as “shallow but satisfying, largely because of Meryl Streep and her big fake English teeth and gift for using mimicry as a means of achieving empathy.”
Writing in the New York Times, AO Scott praised the brilliance of Streep’s performance and said the movie was “likely to be the definitive screen treatment of Mrs Thatcher, at least for a while.”
But Scott added: “You are left with the impression of an old woman who can’t quite remember who she used to be and of a movie that is not so sure either.”
The movie THE WAY was one of the few really magnificent works of art done by a film director. The direction has made this comparatively simple story of a Pilgrim with such artistic elegance it must be seen if you like movies. After a long years career Martin Sheen has evolved in to a fine actor in this movie.
REVIEW by Nancy Frey
The Way: A Love Letter to Spain and Galicia
When I heard that Emilio Estevez’s new film, The Way, set on the Camino de Santiago pilgrimage route in Spain would be premiered in Santiago de Compostela on November 8th, I was eager to go. Starring his father Martin Sheen, Estevez wrote and directed the film as well as appears in it as Sheen’s on-screen son. I knew that in 2009 they had been filming along the route and I wondered what kind of Camino film two Hollywood notables would make. I invited my friend María Santos and off we went to the elegant 19th century Teatro Principal in Santiago´s historical quarter to find out. I have to admit it was quite a thrill to see Martin Sheen and Emilio Estevez walk the mini-red carpet surrounded by a sea of umbrellas as the rain accompanied their entrance.
Estevez and Sheen’s angle was clear early on: It’s a movie of the heart from start to finish. 2010 has been my own personal year of the heart and so this tack resonated strongly with me. Countless times over the course of this year I’ve been reminded to listen to my heart: Let the heart be your compass.
In The Way Sheen plays Tom Avery an ophthalmologist from California who becomes an accidental pilgrim when he receives the tragic news of his son’s death on the Camino. Estevez and Sheen take us on a gripping, epic journey in equal parts hilarious, deep, heart-wrenching and moving as we share the struggle of a father gripped with confusion and remorse to understand the tragic loss of his only son Daniel, a person he realizes he never really understood. Tom suddenly finds himself in Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port, a small village in southwest France where many pilgrims start the Camino today. Impulsively, he decides to take his son’s pack and ashes and walk the 800km across Spain making the journey that his son could not.
The opening scenes are very moving and set the stage for the profoundly human story of how we must each fumble along to find our own way. In the movie Tom says to Daniel before he heads to the Camino, ‘I live the life I chose. Why can’t you do the same?’ Daniel responds, ‘You don’t choose your life, Dad. You live it and that’s what I’m doing.’ The pilgrimage is a metaphor for life and the pilgrim the lost soul who finds his way back home by following his heart. Estevez (and Sheen through his inspired performance) makes you care about this lost soul and wonder how he will ever make it. Unlike other Catholic centers of worship where pilgrims often look for a cure of the body through faith, modern pilgrims to Santiago (most of whom would not define themselves as religiously motivated) frequently seek some kind of answer for life’s inner woes. The focus is on the power of the journey rather than simply reaching the destination. Many people find themselves doing the pilgrimage to Santiago and are not sure exactly why but somehow know that it is the right place to be. The contemporary pilgrimage to Santiago is very popular precisely because of its openness: there’s a place for everyone irrelevant of age, background, faith (or lack thereof) and motivation and it has a way of hitting each individual in just the right spot (even though what that spot might be can be quite a mystery).
One of the common sayings among pilgrims along the Camino is that ‘You can start alone but you never end alone.’ The power of community and friendship is a theme reinforced throughout the film. Tom starts very much alone but soon acquires three unlikely companions who share his journey.
As Estevez shared with me at the after-party, The Way is a modern-day Oz story as three flawed characters help Tom (Dorothy) find his way back home to his son, his heart and, ultimately, himself and his faith. The movie brings vividly to life the sights, sounds (both pleasant and annoying – in addition to a great soundtrack including Coldplay, Alannis Morrisette and James Taylor), color and feel of the Camino as we see the group of pilgrim friends share meals, sleep together in the pilgrims’ refuges, walk through the varied landscapes as well as have both good and bad encounters with locals and, importantly, with each other. Despite their conflicts, and also because of them, the pilgrims are able to have unexpected moments of liberation and insight. The Way gives us a picture of the Camino, warts and all, to show how pilgrimage is a process of trial and error, forgiveness and insight, sorrow and laughter and how pilgrims’ motivations are as varied as a rainbow from the deeply religious to personal angst to physical challenge to the apparently trivial. The characters are credible and you care what happens to them keeping you riveted until the end.
Estevez and Sheen want to show how the Camino’s magic helps to work change in pilgrims – when people leave behind their normal lives and go to the pilgrimage stripped of most of their possessions, normal stress and obligations, they connect more easily with the world (ie, self, nature, God, others, body, history, etc). Unhindered by the labels, status and titles they may have back home, when the day’s obligations are reduced to the basics (walking, eating, and finding a bed), suddenly life seems much easier. As pilgrims lighten their loads mentally, they often describe how their inner worlds also free up giving way to the possibility of greater insight and self-awareness. On the Camino people describe connecting more intensely to everything around them and inside of themselves. Making the pilgrimage to Compostela helps many people discover their own way on the Way – it can be a type of mobile therapy.
The moving story behind the story also involves the heart. When Emilio Estevez introduced the film to the audience he started with a quote: ‘It’s a pleasure to return from whence I came.’ He said, ‘It is the same for Martin and me. Our film is a love letter to Spain. It’s a love letter to Galicia.’ Before Martin Sheen took his stage name he was Ramón Estevez son of a Galician immigrant from Salceda near the coastal town of Pontevedra. Spain remained close to Sheen’s heart and he continued to return to his father’s native land. Seven years ago Sheen invited his family to tour Spain with him. They ended up doing their own road trip of the Camino as they crossed the north of Spain to Galicia. This journey and Sheen’s own faith eventually led them to make their own film about the pilgrimage way and transform it into a tribute to the land of their ancestors. The film is dedicated to Martin Sheen’s father.
Anyone who intimately knows the Camino will find a number of odd edits of landscapes. Emilio Estevez explaines after the premiere that his original movie was 3.5 hours long and he was required to do some creative editing. This is inconsequential to the overall feeling of the film as the scenes selected are visually rich and conjure the depth of beauty of Spain in its many facets (and at its best). They did skip the sections where pilgrims must walk along roadways or wait in lines at refuges but one would expect that type of poetic license. Also, the pilgrims themselves remain remarkably immaculate during much of their pilgrimage, they don’t seem to have any physical problems and Tom tends to charge through the whole Camino with great determination and vitality. I would have softened his pace as his character softens and evolves over the course of the journey. The development and transformation of Sheen’s character is particularly good. We see how the others are deeply touched by the Way but I did wonder how the experience would stay with them over time. Of course, this a major interest of my own (How does the journey impact people in the long-term, if at all?) as I explored in Pilgrim Stories. On and Off the Road to Santiago.
Directed by Roman Polanski; written by Ronald Harwood, based on the book by Wladyslaw Szpilman; director of photography, Pawel Edelman; edited by Hervé De Luze; music by Wojciech Kilar; production designer, Allan Starski; produced by Mr. Polanski, Robert Benmussa and Alain Sarde WITH: Adrien Brody (Wladyslaw Szpilman), Emilia Fox (Dorota), Michael Zebrowksi (Jurek), Ed Stoppard (Henryk), Maureen Lipman (The Mother), Frank Finlay (The Father), Jessica Kate Meyer (Halina), Julia Rayner (Regina), Ruth Platt (Janina) and Thomas Kretschmann (Capt. Wilm Hosenfeld).
“The Pianist” is the story of Wladyslaw Szpilman, a Polish Jew who detailed his survival during WWII. A celebrated composer and pianist, he played the last live music heard over Polish radio airwaves before Nazi artillery hit. During the brutal occupation, he eluded deportation and remained in the devastated Warsaw Ghetto. There he struggled to stay alive even when cast away from those he loved.
Surviving the Warsaw Ghetto Against Steep Odds
By A. O. SCOTT
Published: December 27, 2002
Roman Polanski’s , ”The Pianist,” is based on the memoirs of Wladyslaw Szpilman, a star of Polish radio and cafe society in the 1930’s and a member of Warsaw’s assimilated Jewish middle class, who lived through the Nazi occupation and the Warsaw ghetto. Szpilman’s recollections, published shortly after the war, offer, like other such books, a deeply paradoxical impression of the Holocaust. Accounts of survival, that is, are both representative and anomalous; they at once record this all but unimaginable historical catastrophe and, without intentional mendacity or inaccuracy, distort it.
The reason for this could not be simpler. Most of the intended victims of Nazi genocide did not survive; the typical Jewish experience in 1940’s Europe was death. One of the main genres that allow later generations access to this time thus presents an inevitably unrepresentative picture of it.
We naturally identify with the protagonists of these books, and the characters based on them in movies and plays, and so imagine that we would have been among the lucky ones, even if the real odds suggest otherwise. (We also comfort ourselves in the vain belief that, had we been there, we would have bravely defied the Nazis, risking our own well-being to help their victims.) When it is not treated with the uneasy sentimentality reserved for miracles, survival — whether through dumb luck, resilience, the kindness of strangers or some combination of these — is often viewed with a deep and bitter sense of the absurd.
Mr. Polanski, who was a Jewish child in Krakow when the Germans arrived in September 1939, presents Szpilman’s story with bleak, acid humor and with a ruthless objectivity that encompasses both cynicism and compassion. When death is at once so systematically and so capriciously dispensed, survival becomes a kind of joke. By the end of the film, Szpilman, brilliantly played by Adrien Brody, comes to resemble one of Samuel Beckett’s gaunt existential clowns, shambling through a barren, bombed-out landscape clutching a jar of pickles. He is like the walking punchline to a cosmic jest of unfathomable cruelty.
Perhaps because of his own experiences, Mr. Polanski approaches this material with a calm, fierce authority. This is certainly the best work Mr. Polanski has done in many years (which, unfortunately, is not saying a lot), and it is also one of the very few nondocumentary movies about Jewish life and death under the Nazis that can be called definitive (which is saying a lot). And — again paradoxically — this is achieved by realizing the modest, deliberate intention to tell a single person’s story, to recreate a specific and finite set of events. (Ronald Harwood’s script does take some necessary liberties with Szpilman’s account, but these seem justified by the demands of movie storytelling.)
The ambition to produce a comprehensive vision — a single spectacle adequate to the Holocaust — ultimately defeated Steven Spielberg’s admirable and serious ”Schindler’s List.” Mr. Polanski, in staging a narrow, partial slice of history, has made a film that is both drier and more resonant than Mr. Spielberg’s.
One of Mr. Polanski’s trademarks is what might be called (to continue multiplying paradoxes) a humane sadism. He has always been fascinated by what happens to weak, ordinary people — Mia Farrow in ”Rosemary’s Baby,” for instance, or Jack Nicholson in ”Chinatown” — when they are intruded upon by evil forces more powerful than they, and he punishes his actors, peeling back their vanity to make them show the face of humanity under duress.
One of Mr. Brody’s most appealing features — from ”King of the Hill” 10 years ago through such varied and underseen pictures as ”Restaurant,” ”Summer of Sam” and ”Bread and Roses” more recently — is his quick-witted, almost smart-alecky cockiness. His Szpilman, in the first section of ”The Pianist,” has the gait of a self-satisfied dandy and the smug smile of a man who takes charm and good fortune as his birthright. As he plays piano in a broadcast studio, an explosion rattles the building. He ducks, wipes some plaster off his sleeve, and keeps playing. Later Szpilman refuses to allow the widespread panic at the German invasion to interfere with more pressing matters, like the seduction of a star-struck young woman named Dorota (Emilia Fox).
History, the occupying Germans and Mr. Polanski then conspire to wipe the smirk off his face. The Nazi takeover is followed by a swift, brutal chronicle of violation and humiliation as the Szpilman family are stripped of their possessions, their dignity (the elderly father, played by Frank Finlay, is beaten by a German soldier for daring to use the sidewalk) and their home. With the other Jews of Warsaw, they are herded into the ghetto, a captive labor force subject to continual culling by disease, starvation and the random violence of their tormentors.
Mr. Polanski, working in Poland for the first time in 40 years (and also in Prague), reconstructs the look and rhythm of life in the ghetto with care and sobriety. You feel the dread and confusion of the inhabitants, and you also observe their intuitive, futile attempts to master the situation — circulating underground newspapers, smuggling contraband through the walls and quietly arming themselves for resistance.
The survival instinct is shown to exist in a weird, numb state that combines defiance and resignation. And Szpilman’s evasion of death involves a curious combination of pluck, passivity and arrogance. He is the only member of his family who avoids being shipped to the extermination camps, and he later manages to escape from the ghetto altogether. During the 1943 ghetto uprising, he is locked in a secure apartment in the gentile part of the city, and he watches helplessly from the window as the partisans begin their brave, doomed resistance to the German occupiers.
From this moment forward ”The Pianist” — which opens today in New York and Los Angeles — becomes a tour de force of claustrophobia and surreal desperation, and Mr. Polanski ruthlessly strips his Szpilman down to the bare human minimum. He is neither an especially heroic nor an entirely sympathetic fellow, and by the end he has been reduced to a nearly animal condition — sick, haggard and terrified. But then the film’s climax offers the most dramatic paradox of all: a glimpse of how the impulses of civilization survive in the midst of unparalleled barbarism. When I first saw this film last spring in Cannes (where it won the Golden Palm), I thought Szpilman’s encounter, in the war’s last days, with a music-loving Nazi officer (Thomas Kretschmann) courted sentimentality by associating the love of art with moral decency, an equation the Nazis themselves, steeped in Beethoven and Wagner, definitively refuted. But on a second viewing, the scene, scored to the ravishing, sorrowful music of Chopin, was a painful and ridiculous testament to just how bizarre the European catastrophe of the last century was.
Szpilman may have been the butt of a monstrous joke, but the last laugh — appropriately deadpan — was his. ”What will you do when this is over?” the officer asks. ”I’ll play piano on Polish radio,” Szpilman replies. Which is exactly what he did until his death two years ago.