Everything Is Illuminated

***1/2

Reviewed by: Angus Wolfe Murray

The only thing not illuminated is the title. Why didn't Liev Schreiber change it?

His debut as writer/director - he is an actor (The Manchurian Candidate, The Daytrippers) - might win awards at the Sarajevo Film Festival because this looks, for all the world, to be an East European arthouse indie, the kind you expect to find incomprehensible, while struggling with subtitles, but makes you chuckle nonetheless.

Jonathan (Elijah Wood) is an odd bod. He wears a dark suit, dark tie, neatly clipped dark hair (parted and greased), big glasses. He is either pathologically shy, or a wind up doll. His face is so expressionless that the flicker of a lip, which might (possibly/maybe) indicate the onrush of a smile, becomes hugely significant.

He is a Jew from New York (one of many), who makes the trip to Ukraine to find the village where his grandfather lived. All he has is a faded photograph of a small person, who looks like him, wearing a hat, with two attractive girls on either arm. He also has the name of Heritage Tours in Kiev that turn out to be Alex (Eugene Hutz), a cocky young man with appalling taste in casual wear and a passion for black American street music, his grizzled bad-tempered grandfather (Boris Leskin) and a deranged collie in a tee shirt.

As this eccentric quartet makes it way in a ex-communist jalopy through glorious countryside to the outer reaches of Ukraine's changeless heartland, there are moments of subdued hilarity, especially when Jonathan announces to his incredulous companions that he is a vegetarian and is given a cold potato on a plate.

The search is academic after a while, as it becomes a road movie in two languages, until Alex wanders off into a field of sunflowers to a cottage where a handsome white haired lady lives, with rooms full of memorabilia, piled neatly in shoe boxes, and the journey is over. By chance - and it is chance - they have discovered one of the sisters in Jonathan's faded photograph.

Everything Is Illuminated has a powerful story to tell, locked away beneath the travails of the journey and the personalities of Alex and his grandfather (standout performances from Hutz and Leskin). Jonathan's obsession with collecting items along the way, from a live locust to handfuls of earth, is quirky, rather than absorbing.

Schreiber has done a terrific job and demonstrates a distinctive style. It is a pity that the sum of the parts does not match the individual contributions, although it might well prove to be a grower amongst discerning cinephiles.

Reviewed on: 25 Nov 2005
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Everything Is Illuminated packshot
A man heads on an odyssey to the Ukraine, to trace his father's roots.
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Anton Bitel ****

Director: Liev Schreiber

Writer: Liev Schreiber, based on the novel by Jonathan Safran Foer

Starring: Elijah Wood, Eugene Hutz, Boris Leskin, Laryssa Lauret, Jana Hrabetova, Stepan Samudovsky, Ljubomir Dezera, Oleksandr Choroshko, Gil Kazimirov, Zuzana Hodkova, Ludmila Kartouska, Elias Bauer, Bert Schneider, Tereza Veselkova, Lukas Kral, Vera Sindelarova

Year: 2005

Runtime: 106 minutes

BBFC: 12A - Adult Supervision

Country: US

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