It’s easy to see why this suspenseful, harrowing and inspirational drama is an Oscar contender for best foreign language film, even if it doesn’t join the ranks of such genre classics as “The Diary of Anne Frank,” “Sophie’s Choice” and “Schindler’s List.”
Qualified praise? Yes. This fact-based tale of a Polish Catholic sewer worker and petty thief who assists a group of Jews hiding in the foul, labyrinthine sewer system under Lvov (now Lviv, Ukraine) hews too closely to the emotional beats of its predecessors to achieve full intensity.
Written by David F. Shamoon (and based on Robert Marshall’s 1991 book “In the Sewers of Lvov”), “In Darkness” is the story of Leopold Socha (Robert Wieckiewicz, convincing in both his greed and compassion), the Pole who happened upon a large group of Jewish men, women and a few children hiding in his underground domain.
At first agreeing to help only for money, the casually anti-Semitic Socha (“Give a Jew your finger and he’ll take your arm”) gradually opens his heart and conscience to the people he comes to call “my Jews.”
Holland (“Europa, Europa”) initially presents the terrified escapees as all but indistinguishable, both to Socha and the audience. Personalities slowly emerge from cinematographer Jolanta Dylewska’s shadows.
As a Jewish con man whose prejudices are tested as surely as his courage, Benno Furmann makes an impressive counterpart to Wieckiewicz’s Socha. Their slowly evolving friendship might seem too close to buddy film territory, but their final moments in the sun are for the ages.
What, no airbags?
Everything else about this predictable movie is telegraphed nearly from the outset.
Washington, leaning hard on his usual cool, plays Tobin Frost, a rogue CIA agent who emerges in Cape Town, South Africa, from a decade in hiding to take part in a shadowy plot against his old cohorts.
Remanded to a high-tech “safe house” for an interrogation that goes very wrong, Frost finds himself the captor of an untested rookie agent (Reynolds) only recently recruited from Yale law school.
As the duo goes off-grid en route to the sanctuary of yet another safe house, director Daniel Espinosa and screenwriter David Guggenheim concoct shoot-out after shoot-out, car chase after car chase, all filmed in cinematographer Oliver Wood’s jerky, close-up style that rewards with excitement but punishes with motion sickness.
Despite the high-decibel jolts, “Safe House” lapses into the routine, from the easy-to-guess identity of a CIA traitor, to the inevitable detente between Washington’s not-so-cynical cynic and Reynold’s wising-up-fast naif.
Sam Shepard, Vera Farmiga, Brendan Gleeson and Ruben Blades do what they can with one-note roles, while Washington glides through on detachment and a grin.
Reynolds works hard to outrun his pretty-boy blandness. If action hero status isn’t in the offing, his portrayal of panicked befuddlement rings true.
“Safe House” from Universal Pictures is playing across the U.S. Rating: **
What the Stars Mean: **** Excellent *** Good ** Average * Poor (No stars) Worthless
(Greg Evans is a critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. Opinions expressed are his own.)
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