It looks beautiful, it's got an interesting cast and it's 95% pointless. If you want my honest opinion, it's more or less a waste of time.
The first thing I did after watching this film was look up its writer/director. She's English, her name's Sally Potter and to date she's directed nine films: Thriller (1979), London Story (1980), The Gold Diggers (1983), I Am an Ox, I Am a Horse, I Am a Man, I Am a Woman (1988), Orlando (1992), The Tango Lesson (1997), The Man Who Cried (2000), Yes (2004) and Rage (2009). The most mainstream of them might perhaps be Orlando, which is based on the Virginia Woolf novel and was Oscar-nominated for its art direction and costume design. I'm guessing, mind you. This is the first of her films I've seen and what I've dug up about her so far makes her sound more than a bit odd. The Tango Lesson is about a filmmaker called Sally who's suffering from writer's block. Yes is "expressionistic" and its dialogue is almost entirely in iambic pentameter and usually also in rhyme. Rage was said by the filmmakers to have created a new filmmaking genre, called "naked cinema".
Returning to this particular film, in every respect but one it's impressive. It looks wonderful. It's the last movie of the French cinematographer Sacha Vierny, who'd been working since the 1950s and shot Belle de Jour and quite a few Peter Greenaway films. The production values are top-notch, with a great-looking recreation of England, Paris and other places up to and around the time of World War 2. I like the cast. This film will at least transport you convincingly to its period setting.
Unfortunately the story is just a bunch of stuff that happens. It doesn't really have a protagonist. Christina Ricci is the main character, but she's passive and basically drifts through the story. We first meet her being played by a little girl, Claudia Lander-Duke (who's done other bits and pieces of acting since then, e.g. The Bill). She's a Russian Jew who's being sung to by her father. All the dialogue's in Yiddish with no subtitles, by the way. Stuff happens and she goes alone to England, where she grows up and then goes to Paris. She can sing. She gets a job on the stage. She meets Cate Blanchett, Johnny Depp and an Italian opera singer who defends Mussolini, played by John Turturro.
However it's 1939 and the Nazis are coming. The movie picks up here, since Nazis at least seem a bit more interesting. Maybe something bad will happen to the Jews (Ricci) and/or her Gypsy friends (Depp)? That would be good... but no. The script merely picks up Ricci and dumps her somewhere else, again. There's some business involving Ricci's dad, then the movie ends. It's not tragic, funny or indeed anything really. Dramatically it's like reading a couple of paragraphs about someone's life in a history book, in which you can see the bare bones of a story but there's nothing on them.
So what about the cast, then? They're worth watching, right? If nothing else, this film had the odd knack of giving me delayed-action recognition of everyone except Ricci. I'd keep realising that someone I'd been watching for the past five minutes was Actor X. Turturro has the most interesting role, with his bad manners, his chips on his shoulder and his open support of fascists. He's having fun, anyway. Cate Blanchett was nominated for a few Best Supporting Actress awards and she's doing good work, albeit in a rather unsympathetic way. She's like a predatory insect. Johnny Depp meanwhile is playing yet another mysterious Gypsy love interest in a 2000 period drama set in France. What with this and Chocolat
, it's surprising Brad Pitt was allowed to play a gypsy in Snatch. If that film had been set in France in the 1940s, he wouldn't have stood a chance. Finally there's Christina Ricci as the lead character, who's at least nailing the English accent and successfully managing to look morose and brooding as required by the script. She makes a mess of "what shall we do?" to her father's photo, but otherwise she's fine.
Oh, and there's also Harry Dean Stanton as a theatre impresario. It's almost embarrassing how long it took me to realise that was him.
To be fair, the film has a theme. It's about identity and your place in the world. Everyone's defined by who they are, in a whirlwind of languages and ethnic backgrounds (English, Yiddish, Russian, French, Italian, Romany, Romanian). The Nazis of course are the ultimate examples, as we know they'd send the likes of Jews and Gypsies to extermination camps. "You've got to learn to fit in," says a schoolteacher in England, who himself is Welsh and had as a child been forced to speak English instead of his mother tongue. Lander-Duke gets teased in the playground and smacked by adults. She doesn't fit in anywhere and she wants to go to America to look for her father, except that by the time she's old enough to make the journey, she doesn't. This is a cold film. Gypsies and Russian Jews are warm, but everyone else has the affection of an ice block. 1920s England is horrible. Ricci's friends in Paris hardly seem to register her existence. Ricci herself is taciturn and withdrawn. It's just no bloody fun.
This was an English-French co-production. Its production quality is excellent, but I wouldn't recommend it unless you're in the mood for something slow, charmless and self-consciously arty. I suppose it manages a Cabaret-esque vibe as we see people discussing Germany's invasion of Poland and then saying they're safe in Paris. "Why should we care what Germany does at home?" argue some showgirls, then start discussing the Jews' control of everything. There are some interesting questions being raised here about the difference between racism and cultural identity, but at the end of the day, this is a film so uninterested in plotting that it's more or less a non-story. The final scene's not bad, I suppose. Getting there didn't seem very plausible, though.
"It's for her own good, mind. It'll only make her upset."