Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

"Jakubowicz has achieved what every director depicting the Nazis strives to do but what most fail at - he has made them terrifying again."

When you hear the name Marcel Marceau the chances are that you think of mime and, perhaps, of a white-clad clown with a curiously sad face.Far less attention is paid to the performer's early years, with most people unaware of the important role he once played resisting the Nazis in occupied France. Jonathan Jakubowicz's film dramatises this part of his life and, in the process, provides an insight into a piece of history about which most people outside France know very little.

We begin with Elsbeth (rising star Bella Ramsey), a German Jewish girl whose peaceful childhood is abruptly destroyed when German soldiers murder her parents. Along with a group of other orphans, she is ransomed to charity workers in France. Accommodation is found for them, they're fed and clothed, but nobody knows how to respond to their trauma. Enter local butcher's boy Marcel (Jesse Eisenberg), a would-be actor whose work no-one takes seriously. His improvised clown routine is exactly what's needed to break the ice, especially as it gets around the language barrier. He's only there to please his relatives and Emma (Clémence Poésy), the young woman he likes, who chides him that he never really cares about anyone but himself. Yet Marcel forges a strong connection with the children - especially Elsbeth - and when Strasbourg is evacuated, all its citizens sent to the south of the country ahead of the Nazi invasion, he becomes determined to do something meaningful to change the situation.

The remainder of the film follows his dramatic initiation into the Resistance, its attempts to make things difficult for occupying forces headed by the notorious Klaus Barbie (here played by Matthias Schweighöfer), and Marcel's eventual decision that he can better serve his people by smuggling the children out of France through the Alps, across the border into Switzerland. Like many a historical tale, it meanders in places and it sometimes lacks the punch that a less faithful adaptation might have achieved. On the other hand, though we know that Marcel will survive, we have no such assurances about other characters, and the awareness that some of what we see happened to real people makes the film's darker scenes much harder hitting. Schweighöfer's performance, which combines brutality with a strange kind of innocence, is one of the most disturbing portrayals of a real Nazi figure for some years. Jakubowicz has achieved what every director depicting the Nazis strives to do but what most fail at - he has made them terrifying again.

Though he doesn't look much like the historical Marceau, Eisenberg does a fine job of capturing his mannerisms (including those only seen offstage) and easily adapts his trademark style to the mime routines, which extend beyond comedy performances to teaching the children how to use physical acting skills to evade detection, as well as keeping them calm in intensely perilous situations. He doesn't disappoint in other aspects of his performance either; this is his finest work for some years. Mixed in with the drama and the character work are some spectacular set pieces that will have you on the edge of your seat. This isn't just another artsy biopic - it's a thriller with some really powerful moments.

Although it supplies a bit of additional context, a framing device featuring Ed Harris as the US general George Patton, with whom Marcel would go on to work as a liaison, jars stylistically with the rest of the film and depletes it a little by suggesting that it can't stand on its own two feet. One gets the impression that Jakubowicz doesn't quite have the confidence that he should in his own work. This is a powerful film and one that will appeal to a wide audience, whether they're Marceau fans or not.

Reviewed on: 26 Mar 2020
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The story of Marcel Marceau, who before he became a world famous mime worked with the French Resistance which saved the lives of ten thousand orphans during the Second World War.
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Director: Jonathan Jakubowicz

Writer: Jonathan Jakubowicz

Starring: Jesse Eisenberg, Ed Harris, Edgar Ramírez, Clémence Poésy, Matthias Schweighöfer, Bella Ramsey, Géza Röhrig

Year: 2020

Runtime: 120 minutes

Country: UK, France, Germany, US


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