Varian's great escape: Hurt plays the hero who saved lives in Vichy France by John Griffin
June 8, 2001
Varian's War is William Hurt's to lose, and he does.
The handsomely mounted, fascinating true story of an American who quietly saves some of Europe's great intellectuals during World War II stars Hurt as the title character, Varian Fry. For reasons of his own, or those of writer-director Lionel Chetwynd, he plays the man as though he's just been stunned by a falling brick, or come down with a bad head cold.
"He hardly looks the type to play Moses," another character says of Fry in a moment of understatement. Frankly, William is inert.
This is unfortunate, because he's in almost every scene of a solid Montreal-Britain co-production largely set in Marseille, but keenly shot here in Montreal with some local cast and crew.
It begins in Berlin in 1938, where Hurt's Harvard-educated journalist is shocked at the treatment of the Jewish population by the Nazis. Upon returning to smugly neutral America, he tries to raise the alarm.
With the help of emigre novelist Thomas Mann (Michael Rudder), Fry forms the Emergency Rescue Committee (ERC), dedicated to the liberation of artists, thinkers, scientists and teachers - "the soul of Europe" - from the German scourge.
Encouraged by first lady Eleanor Roosevelt (Sheena Larkin), Fry obtains his own travel documents, rustles up some cash and sets off for the refugee-rich port of Marseille, in "unoccupied" Vichy France. Now all he needs is a plan.
Instead, he rapidly draws a cast of character actors out of World War II central casting. There is a duplicitous superior in the American consulate (David Francis), his deviously altruistic underling (Ted Whittall) and a houseful of the century's seminal cultural figures, among them painter Marc Chagall (Joel Miller), writer Hannah Arendt (Elyzabeth Walling), novelists Heinrich Mann (John Dunn-Hill) and Franz Werfel (Vlasta Vrana) and Werfel's wife Alma Mahler Gropius Werfel (Lynn Redgrave) - a girl who only married genius.
He also lands Julia Ormond's Miriam Davenport, a brave, strong-willed woman with eye appeal; a fixer named Beamish (Matt Craven); and expert forger Freier (Alan Arkin in a watch cap), who will be needed to spirit these people out from under the watchful eye of Vichy Colonel Joubert (Remy Girard, strong as always), Nazi-ish SS Officer Franken (Christopher Heyerdahl) and the legendary French bureaucracy. Given the circumstances, Fry discovers it's also good to know a power-broker like Maury Chaykin's Marcello.
Varian's War is terrific at accruing details and establishing a Casablanca-like atmosphere of intrigue and unspoken tension, less so at laying the whip onto the story line.
But then, Hurt's in no hurry. He doesn't entirely succeed in pulling the film down with him - there's just too much content in a tale that, remarkably, was virtually untold until the mid-1990s, and some strong acting to match the clever period design. But it's not for his lack of not trying.
That Fry was a hero is uncontestable, even if his position as judge and jury in deciding whom to save does give us cause to pause at a selection process that favoured one element of society over another. In all, he aided and inspired the dangerous escape of more than 2,000 refugees over the Spanish Pyrenees from France to the Portuguese coast and freedom in America.
With Hurt in change, it's amazing any of them made it to the Marseille city limits.
© 2001, Southam, Inc.
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