Marcel Marceau biopic Resistance should pack more of a punch

Jesse Eisenberg plays the legendary mime Marcel Marceau in a historical biopic that has its merits but leaves you wanting more, writes critic Travis Johnson.

Frankly, the story of famed mime Marcel Marceau’s World War II-era exploits as a member of the French Jewish should pack more of a punch.

On a purely conceptual level, the logline alone promises narrative gold. Young Marcel Mangel (Jesse Eisenberg), doggedly pursuing a life on the stage in defiance of his kindly but conservative butcher father (Karl Marcovics, who also featured in the 3007 German Resistance drama The Counterfeiters), finds his artistic aspirations curtailed by the rise of fascism in Europe in general, and the Nazi invasion of France in particular. Throwing in with the Resistance, he soon finds himself using his acting skills to fool German soldiers, his artistic talents to forge documents, and his sheer courage to lead hundreds of Jewish orphans to the safety of neutral Switzerland.

On paper, it sounds fantastic. In the hands of Venezuelan director Jonathan Jakubowicz, who writes and directs, Resistance (and can we also note what a drably generic title that is) is merely pretty good. While nothing can take away from the sheer horror and heroism of the actual events depicted—even the briefest shuffle through the historical record will leave you in no doubt of that—as mounted here they’re simply the plot points and tonal cues common to any dozen resistance thrillers and Holocaust dramas.

That is perhaps an awkward thing to admit—that repeated cinematic exposure to the horrors of the Second World War have lessened their effect—but it’s true. If nothing else, there are better films in existence that have tackled the material, and you don’t have to go as far as Schindler’s List, or Army of Shadows. Cabaret looked at the role of the entertainer in the face of rising fascism back in 1972, while in its attempts to metronome between humour and pathos Resistance never gets close to the tonal counterpoints Taika Waititi tapped out in last year’s Jojo Rabbit.

Which is not to say that Resistance has nothing worth engaging with. Jesse Eisenberg has never really managed to escape the trap of his own physicality and mannerism, which means he’s never for a second mistakable for the real world Mangel/Marceau (the stage name is derived from his wartime nom de guerre), but he convinces on an emotional level as a man driven to use what skills he has in service to his people.

A decent supporting cast is arrayed around him, including Clémence Poésy (Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire) as love interest and fellow Resistance fighter Emma. German actor Matthias Schweighöfer, soon to be seen in Zac Snyder’s Army of the Dead for Netflix, brings real menace to the role of real-life Nazi war criminal Klaus Barbie. There are moments of sublime tension, such as when Marceau and a passel of refugee children pretending to be Scouts talk their way past a train-board inspection; and horror, as when Emma and a fellow agent are interrogated and tortured by the sadistic Barbie.

But then you get elements like the framing sequence with a clock-punching Ed Harris as American General Patton. It is then apparent that, for all that he might feel drawn to this material, Jakubowicz is reliant more on prior filmic renditions of the milieu than an actual affinity for the events and characters.

It’s a shame. Resistance is a film you find yourself wanting to like more than it deserves. And while it functions well as a rote WWII resistance drama, it’s hard to ignore the feeling that there was a much better movie to be made from the same raw materials.

Resistance is currently available to rent on the Classic at Home website and available from June 11 to July 11 on the Foxtel Store. It will play in select cinemas beginning June 22 (starting with Melbourne; other states to follow) and be on digital release from July 29.