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Nominated for 7 Academy Awards, including Best Picture, and winner of 3, The Pianist, stars Oscar winner Adrien Brody in the true-life story of brilliant pianist and composer Wladyslaw Szpilman, the most acclaimed young musician of his time until his promising career was interrupted by the onset of World War II. This powerful, triumphant film follows Szpilman's heroic and inspirational journey of survival with the unlikely help of a sympathetic German officer. A truly unforgettable epic, testifying to both the power of hope and the resiliency of the human spirit, The Pianist is a miraculous tale of survival masterfully brought to life by visionary filmmaker Roman Polanski in his most personal movie ever.
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As Szpilman's family is sent off to a death camp a third of the way through THE PIANIST and never appears again, it would be tempting to call the film "Adrien Brody's show all the way." But in fact the film's first distinction lies in its painstaking period detail: everything looks right out of 1940's Continental Europe, from the costumes, to the narrow side-streets, to the house interiors -- to the truly spectacular set depicting a bombed-out Warsaw just before its liberation by the Russians. Yet nothing is romanticized: the filth of the ghetto is just as credible as is the exterior of a genteel cafe that excludes Jews. The actors playing the Szpilmans were all cleverly chosen to form a believable-looking family, with Brody and Jessica Kate Meyer as his sister Halina resembling their mother (Maureen Lipman) and the other siblings, Regina and Henryk (Julia Rayner and Ed Stoppard), resembling their father (Frank Finlay). A last, gratifying detail is the fact that Brody plays most of his piano solos (the majority of them by the great Polish composer Chopin) himself. In a film about a pianist, it would have lessened the impact had the solos been entrusted to a double. (I believe the only time a double -- Polish pianist Janusz Olejinezak -- is used is for an intricate passage during the film's closing credits. All you see, however, are his hands.)
Against this superb backdrop it is, in fact, Brody's performance that carries the film. Director Roman Polanski could hardly have found an actor with more strikingly dark looks, or one who wore the period costumes better -- or one who could be so riveting while actually saying very little. As a character who spends so much of his time quiet and alone, Brody's expressive face, with its famously prominent nose and big, sad green eyes, is exactly what was needed. Take, for instance, the moment in the film when Szpilman noisily drops some crockery in an apartment where he is hiding. In the seconds following the accident, a range of emotions -- from shock and dismay to acceptance and even mild amusement -- flit subtly across Brody's features. Watch the way he struggles to dissemble as the deportation train leaves the ghetto with his family aboard, or the way he looks both exhausted and cold to the point of numbness as he sinks into a waiting chair in a safe house. Whatever the emotion or mood, Brody finds the proper expression, vocal or (most often) physical, for it.
Several touching moments (most of them from Brody) aside, THE PIANIST lacks the sentiment (not to be confused with sentimentality) of some other Holocaust dramatizations. In place of warmth, it generally offers a terse look at events of the period, emphasizing the randomness and senselessness of them. This probably should not be called a drawback; but two drawbacks I believe the movie does have are that a few of its "bit" actors are hammy and that its final "running from the Nazis" sequence (which ends with Szpilman meeting Hosenfeld) goes on a bit too long, exciting as it is (I invariably jump at several moments). These drawbacks are not serious, of course, and should not deter you from checking out this great movie. You will be on the edge of your seat as I was, I promise you that!
The writing is efficient and powerful. The very first scene shows Szpilman playing piano in a radio studio as German bombs fall in September 1939. The next 10 minutes take us through the next two years and the increasing restrictions imposed on the Jews, ultimately leading to their slave labor and transportation to death camps. It propels you into the heart of the story. The pace is riveting, and I found myself rooting for Szpilman all the way.
As played by Brody, Szpilman is a charming, lovable guy whose brilliance as a pianist inspires others to help him escape death. The horrors he witnesses as his family and community are destroyed are vividly portrayed in scenes where people are forced to bargain for life and face casual cruelties. As Szpilman avoids "deportation" and hides out in Warsaw, he witnesses the Warsaw ghetto uprising by Jews (1943) and the general Polish uprising (1944). I really appreciated how these stories of resistance were included. Szpilman is also aided along the way by Christian Poles and a German captain with a love of music. His encounter with the "good" German offers a little uplift at the end of this very dark story. The musical score, including several gorgeous Chopin pieces, complements and enhances the story. Highly recommended.