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The Pianist (15)

Review by: Simon Bell | Rating: Two

DVD SPECIAL FEATURES: 'A Story of Survival' (40 minutes); Theatrical trailer. Filmographies on Roman Polanski, Adrien Brody, Thomas Kretschmann; Photo gallery.

IT'S BEEN a long wait for Roman Polanski fans. Nearly nine years since Sigourney Weaver stuffed her knickers into Ben Kingsley's mouth in Death and the Maiden, to be exact. (I'm not counting 1999's The Ninth Gate. I don't think even Roman would himself.)

The best part of a decade and, although no match for his seminal Chinatown (1974) - one of 20th Century cinema's most important works in fact - it's bloody well worth it: Tense and dark, but not heavy or depressing… And with a few deft moments of comedy.

The true story of Jewish pianist Wladyslaw Szpilman battling to survive the Nazi menace in the Warsaw ghetto of World War II, Polanski here draws on his own experience as a Holocaust survivor; one who witnessed his parents being dragged off to concentration camps and one who himself made a narrow escape.

The director turned down Steven Spielberg's offer to direct Schindler's List (1993) because, he insists, the material was too personal and too disturbing. The true horror was just more truthful than Roman felt comfortable with.

Strange, coming from the man who gave the world Rosemary's Baby (1968) and Repulsion (1965).

Still, his patience paid off: Not counting the fevered Oscar buzz around the picture, the diminutive Hollywood exile picked up the Palme d'Or at last year's Cannes and pretty much swept the board at most other critics' awards. (Famous English playwright and screenwriter Ronald Harwood and lead player Adrien Brody have also been lavished with praise across the global circuit.)

Although in the main this movie is cool and detached (much as Schindler's most definitely wasn't), Polanski is mindful to show as much compassion as he is the cruelty. There's no clear cut good and evil here: Good Jews mingle and come to blows with bad Jews, just as good and bad Poles are shown suffering the same predicament.

Care is also taken to show that, maybe, not all the German soldiers were raging psychopaths after all.

Everything is seen through the eyes of our central character, from the beginnings of his lone struggle to the dramatically intensified latter stages of hunger and total destitution.

Brody retains balance from start to finish and underplays the role to perfection, at the same time having us fear for his health.

Great support from, among others, British stalwarts Frank Finlay and Maureen Lipman as his parents add to the overall air of passivity and vulnerability that is finally smashed to smithereens.

Well worth the hype for once.

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