Jonathan Jakubowicz's Resistance invites judgement as the sum total of its casting choices, in which it is literally and figuratively all over the place; it's an illustration of how a good story when told in one spot by a single, committed narrator can be knocked wildly off-course when seized upon as an international co-production with a dozen polyglot producers tossing notes into a hat. A prologue finds the Venezuelan actor Edgar Ramirez playing an Orthodox Jew in pre-WW2 Munich, reassuring his son everything will soon return to normal shortly before being escorted off stage right by stormtroopers. Then, we lurch ahead to the end of the war, where Ed Harris as General Patton - one of Jakubowicz's better decisions - is regaling his troops with what we're told is a story that will make sense of the soldiers' sacrifices. Only then do we get the story itself, and it's a notable one: how the young Marcel Marceau - back when he was Marcel Mangel, stuck behind the counter of his father's charcuterie in Strasbourg - played his part in the resistance by helping to smuggle Jewish children out of danger. We know from his later career that Marceau could be relied upon to keep the mission hush-hush, but Resistance also means to impress on us how the mime-to-be honed his skills entertaining the kids on their journey. If you can make youngsters living in the darkest existential fear laugh, the thinking goes, then the world is your oyster - provided it stays a world in which we're free to laugh. Marceau is played by Jesse Eisenberg, who is to the Strasbourg of the early Forties what Ramirez was to the Munich of the late Thirties, and the casting leaves Resistance as a film that poses a unique philosophical question of both history and the viewer: what if Mark Zuckerberg had invented a machine to go back in time and stage his very own Sound of Music?
Such puckishness leavens what threatens to become another dull Europudding. Resistance isn't a film that works, but neither is it quite as ploddy as you might fear; instead, it jerks and judders along the way to the conventional heroism of its finale. This Marceau has a funny relationship with his father (the fine Austrian actor Karl Markovics), a serious man who can't believe he's been raising anyone so frivolous as a clown under his roof. The script has a bead on how resistance is often born of youthful rebellion - a desire to mock overbearing authority that came easily to a Chaplin scholar of Marcel Mangel's red-and-white stripe. A sincere, intelligent performer, Eisenberg fashions a kind of fun out of these early scenes, and the tighter the Occupation's grip, the more the actor's natural jitteriness makes sense for the role. The film around him, alas, parks its tanks on the border between fresh and cutesy, almost worthwhile and increasingly trying, Sophie Scholl: The Final Days and Roberto Benigni's Life is Beautiful. It never quite gets its tone or line of approach right, and you suspect that's the result of allowing a director to be beset by his producers. Jakubowicz - whose blunt kidnap thriller Secuestro Express got the Weinstein seal of approval a decade-and-a-half ago - reserves most of his energies for those setpieces in which Marceau and chums divert their fresh-faced charges beyond the gaze of the film's altogether uncomplicated Nazis. He seems almost to be sighing, however, whenever he's obliged to shoot scenes of Marcel bonding with the kids by pretending to be a squirrel, or sets about our hero's nowhere-bound romance with Emma (Clémence Poésy), knowing all too well these are the concessions serious filmmakers sometimes have to make to raise the funds and draw a crowd. Are these any worse than the concessions Jakubowicz made by folding Ramirez (who never appears again) and Harris (who has the indignity, come the closing moments, of being revealed as no more than Marcel the mime's warm-up man, reframing Patton as the Lennie Bennett of World War II) into that extraneous first act? Decide for yourself by all means, but Resistance struck this onlooker as decidedly naive history, requiring its audience be as wide-eyed and credulous as the average mime artist requires us to be wide-eyed and credulous.
Resistance will be available to stream from Friday.