Dir: Jonathan Jakubowicz. Cast: Jesse Eisenberg, Clémence Poésy, Géza Röhrig, Matthias Schweighöfer, Vica Kerekes, Ed Harris. 15 cert, 121 mins
If you were to list actors you could imagine playing Marcel Marceau, would Jesse Eisenberg appear in the top 50? Nevertheless, here he is as the legendary mime artist during his dramatic Second World War years, when he worked with the French Resistance forging papers and hiding Jewish orphans from the occupying Nazi forces.
Eisenberg is the kind of actor whose characters’ thought processes you can watch like clockwork turning just behind his eyes and underneath his skin: it’s what made his performance in The Social Network as the grasping, brittle Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg so endlessly compelling.
But as a mime – even a young, aspiring one – the movements should be clean and the mechanisms invisible; every gesture should speak for itself. In short, this a role that requires an Ansel Elgort, or a de-buffed Zac Efron, or perhaps a Joseph Gordon-Levitt – though with the latter fighting off hijackers this week, he probably has enough on his plate.
Jonathan Jakubowicz’s wartime drama never manages to work around this fatal piece of miscasting. Eisenberg simply doesn’t convince as Marceau for a moment, whether physically clowning for the kids whom his cousin Georges (Son of Saul’s Géza Röhrig) saves from concentration camps, or using his improvisatory nous and millpond composure to outwit the savage Gestapo chief Klaus Barbie (Matthias Schweighöfer) – another historical figure whose fascinating and horrifying story was told in the Marcel Ophuls documentary Hotel Terminus.
Resistance’s premise makes it sound like a spiritual cousin of Life Is Beautiful, the enduringly divisive Italian weepie in which Roberto Benigni shields his son from the Holocaust’s horrors by turning the business of survival into a game. But the staid and sepia-tinted execution makes it just another maudlin historical slog, and the by-all-rights fascinating untold-story nature of its plot doesn’t particularly gee things up.
All early-life biopic boxes are dutifully ticked, including multiple opportunities to see Marcel – then Mangel, rather than Marceau – squabbling with his butcher father over his chosen career path. “You’re a clown dressed like Hitler in a whorehouse!” the older man splutters after discovering his son doing a Charlie Chaplin routine, complete with stick-on toothbrush moustache, in a sleazy cabaret club.
There are also bookend scenes of General George S Patton (Ed Harris) relaying Marceau’s story to a crowd of American GIs at Nuremberg in 1945, though their use as a framing device is so transparent, the general might as well have the word “CONTEXT” flashing above his head in neon. It’s left to Clémence Poésy, in the role of Marcel’s love interest, a fellow resistance member called Emma, to give the film its one perfectly judged moment: an aimless gossip by candlelight with her sister (Vica Kerekes), that provides a lacuna of calm before the latest Gestapo assault.
It stands out for its lack of sentimentality – a shaft of honest emotion in a film that otherwise tends towards the stagey and mannered. When Eisenberg, or rather his body double, jumps out of a tree into a fountain, the children on the ground picturesquely jump in after him; they also tend to be on hand with a keening rendition of Ave Maria at dramatically opportune times.
Then there’s the sequence that follows Marcel’s daring rescue of a colleague from a Nazi prison van in a town square: when word reaches the Gestapo boss that the perpetrator used circus skills, he arrests all the clowns he can find, lines them up in full costume, and has them executed. The scene is so tonally deranged that it left me temporarily lost for words – but as Marceau himself knew well, sometimes no words are required.
Available to watch on demand from Friday June 19