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If you walk out of The Notebook with sigh-inducing, brain-looping daydreams about passionately tonguing Ryan Gosling in the rain—well, there’s something wrong with you. The title of director and co-scripter Janos Szarz’s film is apt yet unfortunately familiar, its Forever stamp on 21st-century pop culture certain to send worshipful Nick Sparks–ians into tizzies until they realize that this World War II-themed release is not an opportunity for another big-screen swoon.
Adapted from an Agota Kristof novel, The Notebook offers a unique—if not entirely successful—view of war crimes that’s part Holocaust, part Lord of the Flies. Yes, the story about twin Hungarian boys educating themselves in the ways of evil feels more like an exercise than a plausible situation. Yet the film is well-acted, chilling, and ultimately engrossing. Thank goodness for that: How many straightforward WWII movies can an audience withstand?
The film is set in 1944, as the nameless adolescent twins (Laszlo and Andras Gyemant) are sent to live with their hardened, widowed grandmother (Piroska Molnar), who’s not too happy about playing babysitter after a two-decade estrangement from their mother (Gyongyver Bognar). The grandmother keeps them outside at first, and she continues to call them bastards even after she warms up to them a bit.
Grannie makes the boys work for food, a condition they both immediately challenge by trying to grab seconds with ninja stealth, staring with warlike intensity at the source of their personal battle as she throws daggers right back. They claim that she beats them, and that others—soldiers, townsfolk—abuse them as well. So they start acting in accordance with their earlier declaration (“we’re at war”), observing how people inflict physical and emotional pain on others and training themselves to be able to endure—and dole out—such torture in order to survive.
Though the Gyemants’ characters express themselves more keenly with their savage eyes and actions than words, the twins tell of their experiences in a voiceover taken from what they’ve written in the titular notebook, which their soldier father gave them before returning to fight, instructing them to record everything they do. In its virgin state, the tablet is beautifully pristine, its thick, blank pages fluttering promisingly as one of the boys thumbs through it. The bloody animations and death tolls will come later.
The Notebook is often cold but rarely brutal, which keeps the boys’ eventually warped sense of vigilante justice feeling one-dimensional. It’s difficult to watch the pair hit and whip each other; Grandma is also built of an unsavory if earthly steel. (That is, until the terrific Molnar lets a glint of fear slip through.) A spare, well-timed sound effect akin to Law & Order’s famous “tha-thunk” plays throughout the film to dramatize the boys’ devolution into little monsters. And yet it’s all too clean, their sadistic turn too quick. Worse, the boys’ deadened stares at their potential prey sometimes makes you think, “bad cop, bad cop.” One of them narrates early on that they have one rule for judging whether what they write is any good: “It has to be true.” Call The Notebook good-ish.
The film opens Friday, Sept. 26 at E Street Cinema.