- Emma Simmonds
- 15 June 2020
The wartime heroism of mime Marcel Marceau is spotlighted in a solidly crafted biopic starring Jesse Eisenberg
Perhaps because of the way we lionise entertainers, Marcel Marceau's world-beating work as a mime has eclipsed that of his lifesaving exploits with the French Resistance in the public consciousness. Telling a tale, therefore, that will be new to many, Venezuelan director Jonathan Jakubowicz fashions a sincere, if rather workmanlike biopic of the man who was born Marcel Mangel.
An inhabitant of Strasbourg when we meet him in 1938, Marcel (Jesse Eisenberg) is a struggling Jewish painter and cabaret artist whose creative endeavours are met with bemusement and disapproval by his stern butcher father, Charles (Karl Markovics). When he's called upon to entertain Jewish orphans rescued from the Nazis, using his gift for mime, he finds that the children appreciate his efforts in a way that helps them heal.
Initially more concerned about the faltering progress of his play, Marcel's renegade artistic spirit ultimately proves a match for Nazi authoritarianism and he finds his courage as he learns to prioritise the lives of others. On his dangerous journey to the South of France and beyond, he is accompanied by potential love interest Emma (Clémence Poésy) and his brother Alain (Félix Moati). The trio work to spirit the kids to safety and freedom, attracting a deadly adversary in the infamous Gestapo head Klaus Barbie (Matthias Schweighöfer).
If Eisenberg's French accent wavers and he doesn't quite share Marceau's limberness, he dials down his neurotic shtick and gives a heartfelt, sometimes physically deft performance which is not as oddly suited to the material as his casting might suggest, while he's supported by a capable, albeit underused ensemble. The show, however, is stolen by Schweighöfer, who brilliantly embodies the ferocious inhumanity and intimidating presence of Barbie in a series of chilling sequences.
The action is bookended, somewhat cheesily, by addresses from General Patton (Ed Harris) to Allied troops at Nuremberg, following the liberation of Paris; Jakubowicz doesn't employ a great deal of subtlety but, with the stakes perilously high, he cultivates a suitably tense atmosphere, marked by danger and sickening injustice. The director delivers a number of nail-biting scenes where the group evade capture by and tangle with Nazis – including a daring rescue, an excruciating encounter on a train, an upsetting torture scene, and a possible death plunge through snowy terrain. Featuring subject matter that's incredibly moving, there's a fitting sense, too, of the guts it takes to resist when the odds are so appalling.
Available to watch on demand from Fri 19 Jun.