I went to my first advanced-screening yesterday. My friend Hannah and I went to see Fugitive Pieces (which is on general release next week) and after a fun Chinese restaurant (‘Pock-marked Old Woman Beancurd’, anyone?) and getting rather lost, we eventually ended up in the little cinema with eleven other people, to watch it.
My friend Louie lent me the book Fugitive Pieces by Anne Michaels ages ago, and not long after that I found a cheap copy in a charity shop, so bought it intending to give Louie her copy back. Which, of course, I forgot to do. And the other day Bloomsbury sent me a review copy, since they’ve done a rejacketed edition. Three copies of it in my bedroom, and I still hadn’t read it when Marie emailed with the opportunity to attend a screening… One bus journey to London later, and I’d read it. Quite quickly, not picking up on all the details perhaps, but certainly it was read.
Fugitive Pieces was published in 1996, and won the Orange Prize for fiction. It might have been a really big deal: I was only ten so I wouldn’t know. The novel kicks off with Jakob, a Polish Jew, hidden in his house as Nazis come and take away his family. He buries himself up to his neck in the forest, to escape detection, and is found by Greek archeologist Athos, who takes him home. The novel takes so many turns and twists that I can’t simplify it here – but, to give a vague gist, it’s about Jakob’s life, the repercussions of what he’s witnessed, his continual meditation on lost sister Bella, and the relationships he has – both familial and romantic. The final section of the book is narrated by Ben, an admirer of Jakob’s poetry, and in his own way affected by the far-reaching effects of the Holocaust.
I didn’t think the book was very filmable, when I read it. The story is involving, but Michaels’ main strength is her incredibly viscous, rich writing style. Metaphors and images overlap and interlace, beautifully. But how to film this?
Somehow they did. Jeremy Podeswa (the director and writer) does an incredible job translating this moving novel to the screen. Though it doesn’t follow the same structure as Michaels’ work, quite, with more flashbacks and flashforwards, all the most memorable sections and expressions remain, and remain poignant. ‘The miracle of wood is not that it burns, but that it floats’ is there, for example, very moving in both film and novel. I’m often dubious about the possibility of capturing the ‘ethos’ or ‘atmosphere’ of a novel, rather than a direct translation of what the author set down, but Fugitive Pieces is a great example of this transferral succeeding.
Stephen Dillane plays Jakob throughout much of his life (though not, obviously, as a young boy – a rather mesmeric Robbie Kay) and does so brilliantly. I only know Dillane from his expressive portrayal of Leonard Woolf in The Hours, but Fugitive Pieces shows a range and depth which I hadn’t imagined. Though Rosamund Pike gets her name on the posters, her role as Jakob’s wife Alex is short, and doesn’t bring across Alex’s kookiness quite enough – a gently zany character who works better on page than screen, I suspect. Much more central is Rade Serbedzija as Athos, who is impressively warm and wise throughout, hiding pain without being oppressed by it.
Fugitive Pieces, both book and film, are poetic and sensitive narratives of the effects of the Holocaust – but that is only where they begin. It’s difficult to say anything new about the awful suffering and incredible acts of cruelty (as well as those of heroism) brought about by the Nazis – Michaels realises that a list of graphic ill-treatment isn’t the way to do it. By writing characters with strong loving relationships, and others desperately seeking them, she can best emphasise the trauma which pervades far beyond the moments of evil – and also how good can be brought out of despicable acts. Podeswa’s film expertly translates these themes, and – though not always a comfortable film to watch – is a beautiful, sensitive and captivating one.