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Fugitive Pieces tells the story of a man who tries to marry one woman while still living with another. So, you don’t blame Jakob’s wife for leaving—well, maybe you do for a little while—but the situation isn’t tawdry, it’s tragic. The other woman isn’t a lover but his adored older sister, last seen being dragged off by Nazis decades before and likely long dead. And her disappearance, even more than the death of his parents, so weighs on Jakob that he finally realizes the ghostly company he keeps may well crowd out any new relationships he tries to form.
We first meet Jakob as a young boy (Robbie Kay) in Poland in 1942, taking piano lessons from big sis Bella (Nina Dobrev), who nervously glances away every time she hears a gunshot outside. Soon, Germans are busting through the family’s doors. Jakob’s mother (Monika Schurmann) ushers him under a table, telling him to keep quiet and that there’s enough food to last him until they return. Then his parents are killed, and Bella disappears. So Jakob starts running and hides himself under some leaves in a nearby forest, which is where a Greek archaeologist named Athos (Rade Serbedgia) finds him.
Athos smuggles Jakob into Greece, where they keep a low profile until the war ends. Athos feels compelled to take care of Jakob, and he’s a nurturing father figure, teaching him Greek and offering a soothing presence in addition to food and shelter. But he’s not exactly confident about the arrangement, confessing to a neighbor that he doesn’t know how to handle such a traumatized boy, even though Athos has experienced tragedy. In one of the film’s more heartbreaking scenes—and there are a lot of them—Jakob throws a tantrum after something reminds him of Bella. Athos, unable to control him and overwhelmed, breaks down in tears.
Writer-director Jeremy Podeswa, adapting a novel by Anne Michaels, doesn’t present these events in a linear fashion, instead focusing mainly on the adult, brooding Jakob (The Hours’ Stephen Dillane) and flashing back to his childhood. After the war, Athos took his “godson” to Canada, moving into a dark, wood-accented apartment in which Jakob is still living decades later when he meets ray-of-sunshine Alex (Pride & Prejudice’s Rosamund Pike). Alex is pretty, blond, and so sassy she impetuously buys a pair of red sandals because “they’d look so good!” while she and her new beau are running through a rainstorm. For some reason she’s in a hurry to marry the very serious Jakob. What she doesn’t realize is that his past—which he parlayed into a book—wasn’t merely baggage but an obsession. Or is it just who Jakob is?
Alex regards it as the former, sure that he’s boring his friends with talk about the Holocaust and naturally upset when she reads Jakob’s journal, in which he describes his unhappiness and inability to relate to his wife’s “shameless vitality.” Jakob fears that he must live the rest of his life alone, which he does for many years, content with the companionship of his Jewish neighbors and scribbling out his thoughts, a hobby-turned-occupation that Athos urged him to pursue to help heal himself.
Fugitive Pieces is predominantly as melancholy as its main character, when it’s not full-on wrenching: There’s a lot of death here, both natural and at the hands of Nazis, with the latter’s presentation of individual assassinations and not scenes of mass murder making it all the more devastating. Jakob narrates from the book throughout, speaking lines that start out sounding unbearably purple (“when a man dies, his secrets bond like crystals…”) but soon fall in step with Podeswa’s frequent sunny outdoor shots to give the scenes a poetic spin.
Dillane’s Jakob is not the most compelling leading man; more interesting and touching are the flashbacks between the wise (but not Christ-like) Athos and the sad, vulnerable little boy. The film, too, occasionally gets weighed down by its ponderousness—though it’s tough to treat the Holocaust any other way—but despite a few lags, it’s always involving. Controversially, Podeswa amended his original cut of the film, lopping off a significant turn in the book’s plot in favor of a more hopeful, open-ended finale. Michaels’ fans may not agree with the choice, but after the brutality witnessed by both Jakob and the audience, the edit feels like just the right bit of respite for everyone.