Opening 14 Jan 2016
Writing credits: Matt Charman, Saul Dibb
Principal actors: Michelle Williams, Matthias Schoenarts, Kirstin Scott Thomas, Sam Riley
In the French village of Bussy in the summer of 1940, Lucile (Williams) is a lonely war bride left behind to mind the manor house under the airtight supervision of her mother-in-law Madame Angellier (Thomas). These are joyless times of mass evacuation, French capitulation and Nazi occupation. Sympathy is scarce as neighbors denounce neighbors, food and weapons are hoarded and summary persecution of villagers begins. The manor house is the new quarters of a handsome German officer, Bruno von Falk (Schoenarts), and in such close contact Lucile is pulled into the spell of his sensitivity and his music. When Lucile hides a local farmer, Benoit (Riley), from the Germans, her emotions and loyalties become confused.
Based on a famous French novel by Irène Némirowsky and filmed in France and Belgium, the film is picture-perfect, Hollywood perfect. Orderly groups of Paris evacuees push wheelbarrows of antique-shop suitcases along country roads bordered with tidy wheat fields; the manor has lovely wallpaper and the wine glasses are splendid. The villagers speak modern English and the Germans for the most part shout monosyllabic orders in the tersest of German. All of this is alienating to say the least.
Schoenarts is once again magnetic as the masculine-but-empathetic lover (this time with a two-tiered haircut that shows off his neck rather nicely). Lucile scurries around the village like a lost chicken, but her wide-eyed character lacks depth and it is hard to be interested in her. Madame Angellier is a mother-in-law from hell. A bit more imperfection, or dare I say subtlety, would have served this film well. Despite everything the story itself is riveting, and it is worth forgetting the quiet perfection of the novel to see this film on its own terms. (Ann Gebauer-Thompson)