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The loneliest piano player in the world


The Pianist is the first film director Roman Polanski has made in Poland since his very first feature. It's also, according to the press notes, the film he's waited his entire career to make. It's too bad he waited so long, because if Polanski had made The Pianist a little earlier into his career, it would have been that much more devastating to watch.

            I don't know if it's me or what, but it's getting to the point where I've become almost desensitized from watching so many movies about World War II and Nazis and Jews and Hitler and the Holocaust and concentration camps and genocide. And I'm sure that's the opposite intention of any filmmaker who attempts to tackle a picture about the topics listed above.

            Because The Pianist won the Palme d'Or at Cannes this year, I was anticipating something earth-shattering, so perhaps my expectations were a little high. It's still a good film, but it doesn't really offer anything we haven't seen before. Had The Pianist been the first film about somebody going through hell trying to survive the Nazi experience, I would expect people to be falling all over the film. But it's, like, the 96th. I wanted to love it, but I just couldn't. Does that make me a heel? Anyway, enough about me.

            The Pianist opens in a 1939 Warsaw radio station, where popular pianist Wladyslaw Szpilman (Adrien Brody) is performing Chopin live on the air --- until German bombs blow the place apart. Wladyslaw runs home to his family, who are about to hightail it out of the city, when the radio announces England and France have just declared war on the Germans. Thinking things might take a turn for the better, the Szpilmans decide to stick around and begin to busy themselves with finding a hiding spot for their excess money, since the Germans only allow families like theirs to keep $2,000.

            Of course, that's just the beginning of the humiliation and atrocities suffered by the Szpilmans and the rest of the Jews in Poland. Soon, park benches and certain stores became off-limits. Then they were forced to break out the Star of David badges. Then, in October 1940, the family was forced to move into the infamous Warsaw Ghetto, where more bad stuff happened, followed by worse stuff, followed by a forced train ride into the country. Wladyslaw manages to escape before being sent to Treblinka, and spends the rest of the film scampering from hiding spot to hiding spot as he watches his city collapse from the window.

            Wladyslaw's isolation is the only thing that really separates The Pianist from the scores of other films with similar content. In a way, it makes the last half of the film a lot like Cast Away, and Brody's performance is --- thank God --- strong enough to carry the film. In one torturous scene, Wladyslaw is put up in a room that also houses a piano, but he can't play it because nobody is supposed to know he's there.

            The Pianist's use ambient noise, rather than a typical score, helps drive home the banality of Wladyslaw's isolation. Other strong positives include cinematographer Pawel Edelman slowly leaching the film of all its color, and the wildly incredible sets and production design, some of which are done on an impossibly grand scale.

            But there are still a few negatives. For some reason, the Poles speak English, even though the Germans speak German. There's a scene toward the end where an increasingly decrepit Wladyslaw plays Chopin for a special guest, but somehow manages to remedy both his permanently slouched posture and his gnarled fingers to do so. And, worst of all, the happy, uplifting ending brings to mind The Sum of All Fears, which used a similar approach even though its body count was somewhere in the millions.

            Maybe the Cannes jury ate up The Pianist because it was a true story (Wladyslaw, who died in 2000, penned his autobiography shortly after the war). Maybe it will be this year's version of A Beautiful Mind, which I liked about as much as I did this film. Both are flawed in very different ways, and both have very strong lead performances. But neither come close to being the best of the year.

Charles Dickens' The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby was probably something I was supposed to read at some point in high school. I have a vague recollection of taking a lengthy, essay-style exam about it. Based on my extremely limited knowledge of the plot, which was probably supplied moments before the test by somebody sitting next to me, Nickleby sounded like the kind of novel I was smart to avoid.

            But I'm older now. Wiser (slightly) and (a little) more refined, too. When I was sent a copy of the new screen version of Nicholas Nickleby, I didn't have any 'Nam-like flashbacks to school. I watched it --- the whole thing. And if I knew then what I know now, I may have given ol' Nickleby a crack. Nobody mentioned that the story was this funny and campy.

            Then again, I harbor a sneaking suspicion that writer-director Douglas McGrath gussied things up more than a little bit to keep dolts like me interested. Nickleby is still set in 19th-century England where, after an Amélie-like opening narration, young Nicholas (Charlie Hunnam) finds himself in the plush office of his disgustingly wealthy Uncle Ralph (Christopher Plummer). Nicholas's father has just died, and what remains of his immediate family is turning to Ralph for financial assistance.

            Being Dickensian and all, Uncle Dirt-Bag separates Nicholas, his mother, and his sister, sending our eponymous protagonist off with a one-eyed buggerer named Wackford Squeers (Gangs of New York's Jim Broadbent --- making this his second film with a one-eyed character in a month). Wackford runs a school for young men called Dotheboys, and he wants our Nicholas to teach there. Dotheboys, however, turns out to be little more than a prison, where mistreated children are raised like veal while Squeers pockets the money earmarked for their education.

            So let me get this straight: There's a guy named Wackford Squeers (go on, sound it out) who runs a place called Dotheboys (sound that out, too)? And Nicholas befriends a nubile young cripple named Smike (Jamie Bell), who he rescues while fleeing the faux school? This Nickleby thing might have more homosexual undertones than an Eddie Murphy film. And just when you think it can't get any more gay, in pops Nathan Lane, whose theatrically minded Vincent Crummles is married to a linebacker of an actress with a face that could stop a clock (Barry Humphries). They're just some of the many wacky characters Nicholas and Smite meet on the way to Nickleby's finale, which is all about the retribution.

            There's more going on here, like Uncle Ralph's habit of trying to fix up Nicholas's sister, Kate (Romola Garai), with society men with busy hands, and Nicholas's own romance with Madeline Bray (Anne Hathaway). Hey --- they're a pair of star-crossed lovers who each have had good television shows canceled by Fox! Still, this isn't the Dickens that you might remember reading back in the day. It's Dickens via the Coen brothers, right down to the cartoonish miser sitting behind the desk (not to mention the camera movement and production design). It's stylish; witty; packed with memorable, campy performances; and it's a whole lot of fun.

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