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film review
  • Irena’s Vow
  • Directed by Louise Archambault
  • Written by Dan Gordon
  • Starring Sophie Nélisse and Dougray Scott
  • Classification N/A; 121 minutes
  • Opens in theatres April 19

The main action in Irena’s Vow is triggered by a chilling scene in a Polish street where a Nazi officer murders a baby in front of its mother. Chilling but predictable: This new Holocaust drama about a Polish nurse who successfully hid a dozen Jews in the home of a Nazi commander treads familiar ground.

A co-production between Poland and Canada, lead by Quebec director Louise Archambault and written by Canadian Dan Gordon based on his own play, it includes many scenes where the tension feels rote. The soldiers sweep into a Polish town; the hidden cower in a basement; the car with Jews in the back covered only by a tarp approaches a checkpoint. Like many a Hollywood Holocaust movie of the type that unfolds in English spoken with a European accent, the film’s undifferentiated suspense is built entirely around the risk of discovery – until a third act twist finally complicates the plot.

Irena’s Vow, also a 2009 Broadway play, is based on the true story of Irene Gut Opdyke, who was recognized by Yad Vashem as Righteous Among the Nations in 1982 for her role helping Jews from the ghetto in Tarnopol, then part of Poland, now Ternopil in Ukraine.

In the film version, Irena (Quebec actress Sophie Nélisse) is trained as a nurse but forced to work in a munitions factory by the Nazi occupiers until the local commander, Major Rugmer (Scottish actor Dougray Scott), discovers her apparent diligence. He moves her into the kitchen of the officers club and also puts her in charge of a group of Jews working in the laundry before promoting her to the comfortable role of housekeeper in a gracious villa he has commandeered for himself.

Open this photo in gallery:

A still from the film Irena's Vow. The movie, which opens Friday, tells the true story of a nurse who risked her life to rescue a dozen Jewish people during the Second World War.HO/The Canadian Press

However, a traumatized Irena has witnessed the baby’s slaughter and vowed she will save any life she can: When she and the laundry workers recognize the ghetto is about to be cleared, she comes up with a daring scheme to move them into the villa’s cellars.

The rest of the film revolves around the villa. In a ghastly version of Upstairs Downstairs, the action alternates between those hiding in the basement and the major’s pleasant existence in spacious living quarters overseen single-handedly by his remarkably capable housekeeper. (When the commander is away, the house’s secret inhabitants help cook and clean.)

Of course, discovery is inevitable, but what rescues the film is the complex figure of Major Rugmer, his ambivalence toward Nazism tempered by his wartime pragmatism. Scott does excellent work portraying this compromised but not unsympathetic character, placed in sharp contrast to Maciej Nawrocki’s classic Nazi, devoid of any natural human feeling as he murders his way through the town. This officer coolly announces he must have the zone Jew-free by July 22; Rugmer, who is charged with meeting industrial quotas, complains that the roundups will deprive him of workers.

Interestingly, this character may be fictitiously flawed: The real Eduard Ruegemer wasn’t recognized as Righteous Among Nations until 2012, long after his death, but Yad Vashem’s account of his activities suggest that he and Irena were co-conspirators and that he was aware of the people in his basement because he hid them there, as well as aiding many others in the plant he oversaw. However, other accounts stick closer to the film’s ambiguous figure, suggesting he was not initially involved in the scheme.

The avuncular Andrzej Seweryn plays an older Polish worker who represents the bystander philosophy: He is willing to overlook disappearing food but tells his young colleague to look out for herself.

Irena Gut, as she was known until her postwar marriage to an American UN worker named William Opdyke, is sometimes described as humorous or witty but that is not how Nélisse plays her in a solid performance that anchors the film. She makes Irena earnest, as the righteous often are, and so certain of her moral core that she never hesitates when the situation demands she take larger and larger risks.

Nélisse treads an interesting line between observing the social compliance that keeps Irena safe under Nazi occupation, and the secret determination to do the right thing. As master and servant, she and Scott dance an intriguing waltz that leaves the viewer to wonder who is leading whom.

If moments in Irena’s Vow rise above the self-congratulatory empathy and predictable plots of the standard Holocaust drama, it is thanks largely to these two performances portraying complex human reactions in the face of evil.

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