Poet (Hearts of War), The

Reviewed By Jay Seaver
Posted 09/28/07 12:01:56

"When the audience laughs at your WWII drama, something has gone wrong."
1 stars (Total Crap)

SCREENED AT THE 2007 BOSTON FILM FESTIVAL: You're not supposed to laugh at movies like "The Poet". It's serious business, after all: Polish Jews running from the advancing German army! A good young man caught between his own loving, artistic heart and the brutality of his country! Sure, it's not like we were roaring or yelling at the screen, but let's face it: Once the audience is snickering, you've failed.

The story of Oscar (Jonathan Scarfe) and Rachel (Nina Dobrev) is supposed to be grand and tragic - Oscar is a poet, but during World War II he was doing intelligence work for the army in Poland, which finally made his father (a general) proud. He comes across Rachel during a snowstorm that arose rapidly, bringing her back to his home to nurse back to health. They fall in love almost immediately, despite the awkward question of Rachel's fiancé Bernard (Zachary Bennett). Oscar helps the two escape, but the Jews only make it to the Russian frontier, where paths will cross once again.

There are problems with this film from the very start, many stemming from its insistence that we like Oscar early on. I'm sure that we're supposed to be coming to a more complete understanding of him or seeing him as growing because he's in the German army and that makes him unsavory by default, but that plan backfires badly: His first poems (voiced over like a high-schooler who just wishes people understood) are about the injustice of war, his mother (Daryl Hannah) outright tells us and his father (Kim Coates) that he has a soul that should not be tainted by this evil, and he has no visible reaction when he finds the Star of David in an unconscious Rachel's locket. So the net effect is that we wind up respecting Oscar less, since despite all the film's attempts to portray him as basically good, he's still helping the Nazis invade Poland. Scarfe doesn't do much to further our interest; his performance is as bland and wishy-washy as the character.

There is some chemistry between him and Nina Dobrev, but their relationship doesn't ring very true - it's love at first sight, although that's a little creepy when that first sight comes with one of the parties unconscious. One of the movie's weaknesses is portraying the passage of time, so we've got no real idea how long Oscar and Rachel take to actually fall in love. It certainly feels like they're professing their devotion with Rachel ready to ditch Bernard within about a day (to be fair, it's something of an arranged marriage). Neither Dobrev nor Bennett is quite so wooden as Scarfe, but neither really manages to grab the movie and make the audience care about their fate, though Dobrev comes close.

What's particularly frustrating is that toward the end, we get glimpses of what could have been more interesting movies. Dobrev's transformation from pretty naïf to pragmatic cabaret singer in a Nazi camp is more or less jumped over, and the fallout from the cabaret segment leads us over the Russian border - and I would have happily watched a movie about the woman leading the local cell of partisans. These are much more interesting characters than Oscar, but the film has a frustrating habit of returning to its title character, culminating in an ending that just boggles the mind.

I can appreciate that Damian Lee wanted to do something better than the direct to video dreck that has made up the bulk of his career, but I'm not convinced he has the skills for it. I know Roy Scheider is better than his stilted segment as a rabbi who officiates over an impromptu wedding (with a conveniently perfect wedding dress!), for instance. The courtship between Oscar and Rachel is, as mentioned, awful, and I've got to think that Kim Coates and Daryl Hannah could do even better if there was a little meat on the bones of their characters, rather than them just being personifications of the two directions Oscar is being pulled.

Sure, "The Poet" likely has more redeeming value than most of Lee's other work - he does have "Abraxas, Guardian of the Universe" on his résumé, after all. That's damning with faint praise, though, and "Black Book" is out there if you want to see a really GOOD Nazi-Jew love story.

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