Nominated for an Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Picture, In Darkness is a dramatization of a real-life story from World War II, about a Polish man who reluctantly helps a group of Jews live in the sewers of Lvov for over a year. The story is pretty remarkable and the movie is quite good, but In Darkness lacks the emotion found in cinema's greatest depictions of the Holocaust.
Directed by Agnieska Holland, In Darkness tells a remarkable story that by definition would be hard to mess up even if it were filmed by a bunch of elementary school students. Thankfully, Holland, who is Polish, is neither an elementary school student nor an amateur; she captures the horror of the time period well. The first 30 minutes are especially disturbing as she shows the extent to which the Nazis would torture the Jews.
But beyond those moments, which I hate to call cliché but do seem like table stakes when telling a story about the Holocaust these days, Holland presents a fairly straightforward production that neither distracts from the story nor enhances it. In Darkness is a good movie but not a great one, in part because Holland doesn't inject originality into the visuals.
The movie is largely a character drama, and much of it is spent underground in the dark. While it's easy to feel pity for the many characters, they always seem kept at an arm's length, despite various subplots intended to develop them more fully. To truly stand alone, Holland needed to dive into the mind of at least one of these Jewish survivors, to understand and relay to the audience the psychological impact of living underground in a foul, feces-infested sewer for over a year.
Instead, the movie focuses on Leopold Socha, the Polish man who saved these people from almost certain death. He's a reluctant hero, a man who simply wants to earn a buck and support his family, but who ultimately manages to outgrow his selfishness and help others because he does, deep down, truly care about them. Robert Wieckiewicz is no Liam Neeson, but he turns in a fine performance as the conflicted Pole.
His story is worth telling because his act is heroic, but that makes In Darkness a rough-around-the-edges version of Schindler's List, nothing more. There's nothing wrong with that - and fans of World War II-era films should certainly give In Darkness a look - but the filmmakers frustratingly missed out on a more intriguing and unique opportunity. Rather than following the hero, In Darkness should have been showed from the perspective of one of the people trapped underground.
That would have been truly harrowing.
In Darkness is a very good movie and among the better films of 2011, but while its story is pretty incredible, the movie itself offers nothing groundbreaking.
Review by Erik Samdahl unless otherwise indicated.
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