Following up some of the same themes as his earlier film, Jewboy, director Tony Krawitz this time brings Christos Tsiolkas’ novel to the screen. Ewen Leslie puts in an understated performance as the Australian Isaac, who against the wishes of his family takes his father’s ashes to Greece to scatter them in his dad’s homeland.
When he arrives in Europe there are ominous warnings about curses on his father and leaving the past in his past. Things take a strange turn when he comes across a teenage boy called Josef (Kodi Smit-McPhee) who’s just been robbed. After agreeing to take the boy home, the youngster suggests the woman in the flat they go to is not his mother, and he needs help. However when Isaac returns later that evening, there’s nobody there and the residents tell him the flat has been empty for months.
Isaac’s European odyssey continues from Greece to Paris and onto Budapest, where he learns more about his family’s past and the truth of a story about his dad having helped save a Jew during the Second World War. And wherever he goes, he’s haunted by visions of Josef.
This is not a film that paints Europe in a very flattering light. Visually it doesn’t matter where in the continent Isaac is, it’s dark, seedy, depressed and grimy. Even the Greek countryside is a backwards land of old women dabbling in the supernatural and men whose wardrobe hasn’t changed in 100 years. But then it’s rather like the plot, a place that’s halfway between the real and the metaphorical.
It’s all very dark and brooding, with Isaac a lost soul whose journey uncovers a Europe that’s trapped in a cycle of depression, exploitation and lies. As a gay Australian of Greek descent, he seems to be searching for roots and something he can anchor himself into. What he finds is confusion, secrets and an increasing sense of displacement from himself. He discovers a continent where history is constantly repeating itself, fed by a diet of people obfuscating the past, ignoring the present and feeding off prejudice.
The film is filled with a lot of interesting ideas, but it’s often difficult to engage with. Dead Europe seems to be trying to show Isaac’s journey as one of dislocation, but the result is often that the film as a whole feels dislocated. Ideas come and go, themes erupt and then disappear, only for echoes of them to re-emerge. This could all be very intriguing and give your brain a good workout, but too often it tips into pretention that feels more like it’s about creating the semblance of meaning than any actual meaning itself.
If everything had come together at the end, that would have been fine, but it builds to a climax that seems pretty pleased with itself but is actually rather underwhelming. The problem is mainly to do with the script and the fact that while Isaac is a fairly quiet character all the way through, there are way too many obvious questions he doesn’t ask towards the end, especially when a character emerges to bring about the denouement. There is some thematic sense to it, but it stretches things to the point where it stops feeling like it’s about real people and real ideas.
It’s a shame as there are all sorts of good things about Dead Europe, from the initial building of Isaac’s character to the sense of this taking place partway between life and death – Europe is almost purgatory for Isaac. However it never fully resolves into anything, leaving so much up in the air – what’s real, what an illusion, what’s true, what isn’t, what’s unresolvable and what’s a way out – that’s it’s difficult to really take an awful lot away from the movie, barring a dark sense of regret about the things you know you should have done but didn’t, and that no matter how deep you bury something, it’s never going to fully go away.
You’re left with a film that feels like the anguished cry of people transplanted from their ancestral homelands, venting their anger and cultural fury at a place from their familial past that’s taken on mythic proportions. It’s a place that feels like the birthplace of all that is wrong, but which they can’t escape.
There’s a lot that’s been put into this film and it’s close to being excellent – creating a complex melting pot of culture, place, sexuality and history as one man searches for a sense of identity. However without an ending to match what the film has built – as well as the fact so many themes are brought up and then ditched – it can’t help but fail to live up to all it could have been. For example, early on there are interesting thematic ideas about Isaac’s sexuality challenging the ancestral culture he’s come from, but after an interesting dinner conversation, a random hook-up in a park and a drug-fuelled three-way with his female cousin and another man, this whole aspect is dropped.
There’s a sense that Dead Europe is little too pleased with itself and as a result ends up not fully being anything. You can still get quite a lot from the movie, but it’s more from its suggestions and hints than from anything fully developed.
Overall Verdict: An intriguing look into identity, history, familial suffering and confusion, but while it builds nicely it never brings cohesion to its numerous thematic threads. It’s an interesting film, but not a fully successful one.
Reviewer: Tim Isaac