Review: Dead Europe
Ewen Leslie in Dead Europe.



Australian director Tony Krawitz' (Jewboy, The Tall Man) troubling narrative feature is adapted and apparently streamlined from the dense 2006 novel by Christos Tsiolkas.

It's the third Tsiolkas novel to be translated to the screen, after Ana Kokkinos' 1998 film Head On (from his 1995 novel Loaded) and last year's superb television miniseries, The Slap. It is also doubtless the most challenging.

The film traces a 30-something gay Australian photographic artist named Isaac (Ewen Leslie), who leaves Melbourne after his father's sudden death, both to repatriate his ashes to the family's ancestral village in Greece and for a new exhibition of his own photographs in Athens.

It's a trip he decides to make in spite of his mother's (Eugenia Fragos) fears of reigniting the family curse she believes claimed her husband - a curse shrouded in mystery.

It's a dark, menacing film, beautifully photographed (Germain McMicking), ominously scored by Jed Kurzel (Snowtown), and featuring a commanding performance from Leslie - especially in the film's strong first scenes - and later from Marton Csokas as his drug-ravished brother Nico, who lives in Budapest.

Isaac is a compelling character; openly gay, strong, dismissive of his mother's concerns, and healthily pragmatic about the strange interactions he comes up against in his father's homeland.

But the complex mystery upon which the story pivots - one that is wound up in the horrific treatment of a Jewish boy during Word War II - becomes less and less convincing as the story takes on a magical, hallucinatory element and Isaac finds himself chasing a child, ostensibly a refugee (Kodi Smit-McPhee), across Europe from Greece to Paris and eventually Budapest.

Louise Fox's screenplay, distilling an evidently complex, multi-threaded tale into less than 90 minutes of screen time, is frustratingly elliptical.

It touches on some relevant themes - of identity, especially in the immigrant experience, and how our pasts, personal and collective, inform our present. But they are never meaningfully explored, as the film shifts from drama to horror and gets caught up in unconvincing genre mechanics. Most frustrating is that Isaac's character arc simply doesn't ring true as the supernatural sets in.

It's hard to swallow that his typically Australian scepticism simply dissolves in the festering underbelly of darkness he finds in Europe. Yet somehow you know Krawitz has more to say than what his film conveys - not just about Europe's dark past but also about its present.

Interestingly, it is Krawitz' wife Cate Shortland's superb recent feature Lore, a bracing film set in the aftermath of WWII in Germany, and told from the perspective of the teenage daughter of two nazis, that more convincingly explores ideas of guilt and how our family histories can influence our present.

That film explored extremely troubling territory with subtlety, clarity, and a cathartic sense of hope. Conversely, Dead Europe takes no prisoners - and is ultimately a perplexing and alienating experience.

The West Australian

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