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Heartfelt rather than gut-wrenching, Resistance is an origin story. Not of a superhero, which is what origin stories usually concern themselves with. But of the world’s most famous mime, Marcel Marceau, who died in 2007 aged 84. This seems, at first glance, amazing in itself. After all, who’s interested in that? But it turns out there is more to Marceau, a lot more, than the white face make-up of his most famous character, the silent Bip the Clown.

He was born Marcel Mangel in Strasbourg, France, in 1923, which means Marcel was about 15 in 1938 when Resistance takes up his story. The Nazis are just over the border and Strasbourg is regularly receiving Jewish refugees from Germany. Not that Marcel really notices. He’s a self-absorbed philosophical sort, though he’s connected enough to the world to have spotted the pretty Emma (Clémence Poésy) and it’s to get into her good books that he starts to assist with the evacuees, helping to place them with local families. He also entertains them, with the cabaret act he’s trying to work up, in the spirit of his idol Charlie Chaplin.

At around 37 you’d think that Jesse Eisenberg would be a bit old to be playing a teenager, but he just about gets away with it, even though his mime skills aren’t that hot. Fair enough, Marcel is only on the nursery slopes. Nervy, nerdy, expressive though tight-lipped, Marcel is very much a familiar Eisenberg character.

Doctoring his name on his own passport – Mangel becomes the less Jewish Marceau – Marcel realises he has a skill for forgery and is soon helping the French resistance produce fake ID for the refugees. But that’s about as far as it goes for the pacifist Marcel until the entire city of Strasbourg is evacuated out to Limoges and infamous Nazi torturer Klaus Barbie (Matthias Schweighöfer) shows up, en route to earning his nickname, the Butcher of Lyon.

Marceau, as he now is, becomes increasingly involved with the Resistance, doubling down on his commitment after Barbie gets hold of Emma’s sister, Mila (Vica Kerekes), and does unspeakable things to her, eventually becoming a key figure in the spiriting of thousands of Jewish children to safety in Switzerland.

Marcel tries to impress Emma with a trick
Marcel tries to impress Emma with a trick

Barbie is a brute, an absolutely appalling man and Matthias Schweighöfer (star of the nonsensical but entertaining TV seriesYou Are Wanted) gives it both barrels as the frothing über-zealot who we first meet beating a “homosexual Nazi” with a chair leg. Later, we’re introduced to Barbie’s torture chamber, which is full of the sort of hooked instruments you don’t want to look at twice. And yet writer/director Jonathan Jakubowicz takes pains to present Barbie not as a monster but as a human being – Barbie has a child who he loves and whose future he frets about.

There’s a problem here. The film spends so much time in Barbie’s company that its centre of gravity starts to drift his way. Barbie is a horrible man, but because of the way he’s been written, and the way Schweighöfer is playing him, he’s also a compelling screen presence.

Also muddying the water a touch is Jakubowicz’s decision to tell the entire story in flashback. Ed Harris bookends the entire film as General Patton, introducing entertainment-hungry troops to Marceau’s first professional performance as a mime in post-liberation France.

There are modern resonances and Jakubowicz’s screenplay more than once takes time out to explain the Nazi rationale for exterminating the Jews, how they conspiratorially ran the world etc etc. The echo in a world of Soros bashing, QAnon nonsense and the like is astonishing.

Resistance has plenty of fantastically tense moments and a lot of fine acting. It’s full of expertly engineered set pieces, is lavish with period detail and tells a fascinating-because-true story. But for all of Eisenberg’s twinkling and the immense charm of his performance, his Marceau – a cheap gag but also true – never really speaks to us.

Resistance – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

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© Steve Morrissey 2021

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