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‘Charlotte’ Film Review: Keira Knightley Voices a German Jewish Artist in History’s Crosshairs

Animated film lacks the daring of the real Charlotte Salomon’s paintings, but its examination of Nazi oppression rings all too familiar in the modern day

In a better world, the animated feature “Charlotte,” about a young and prolific Jewish painter who was murdered in the Holocaust, wouldn’t seem so uncomfortably immediate and timely in the 21st century.

But here are, with hateful rhetoric on the rise in political discourse and marginalized groups being once again demonized and legislated against. Tahir Rana and Éric Warin’s sensitive biopic about Charlotte Salomon reminds us of the many disturbing parallels in Germany during the decade before World War II.

While “Charlotte” is hardly the first film to tackle that tragic era, it nevertheless offers a sobering and effective drama.

Charlotte Salomon, voiced by Keira Knightley, is a young girl coming of age between the wars, with a flair for painting that leads her into one of the finest German art schools. Her talent, and her father’s war record, make her an exception to the school’s rule against accepting Jewish students, and her expressionistic style runs almost anarchically counter to the work of her peers that receives mainstream praise from the state.

Charlotte’s early love affair with Alfred Wolfsohn (Mark Strong) fuels her artistic and romantic passions, and their tryst’s unfortunate conclusion coincides with her parents’ decision to help her flee Germany, sending her to stay with her grandparents at a wealthy socialite’s estate in France. Ottilie Moore (Sophie Okonedo) has been taking in as many refugees as she can, including the scarred, sensitive Alexander Nagler (Sam Claflin), but as soon as Charlotte arrives, she’s forced to leave and care for her elderly grandparents on her own.

Grosspapa (Jim Broadbent) and Grossmama (Brenda Blethyn) are a sad tale unto themselves. An upsetting incident soon leads Charlotte to a shocking realization about her family’s history of mental illness as well as a similarly unsettling choice to make about her own future with her grandfather. Meanwhile, Germany is on the march, and with time running out, Charlotte desperately strives to tell both her life story and that of her family, over the span of over 750 paintings, a task that consumes her.

The screenplay by David Bezmozgis (“Orphan Black”) and Erik Rutherford is a relatively straightforward telling of Salomon’s life, guiding the audience through all the major bullet points with efficiency and sometimes a little beauty. “Charlotte” isn’t afraid to confront the more morally complicated aspects of Salomon’s biography, although in an apparent attempt to keep the film tasteful, some of the horrors Salomon and her family endured are kept so tidily off-screen that their impact is, one might argue, a little diminished.

The decision to tell Salomon’s story in animation makes a lot of thematic sense, since the artist herself was engaged in telling a complex autobiographical tale through her own paintings. It’s strange, then, that so little of Salomon’s exciting and distinct style comes to life cinematically over the course of “Charlotte.” Although we see her paintings as she crafts them, so very little of the film incorporates Salomon’s material into its aesthetic that one can’t help but wonder if the medium is being used to its utmost. In live-action, perhaps the film’s many stiff visual performances could have read with more subtlety (although the decision to let the largely British cast keep their own accents would no doubt be distracting in any format).

Warin (“Leap!”) and Rana’s biopic portrays the life of Charlotte Salomon with an incredibly thick brush and significantly less nuance than the artist’s own work, which tells the same story. The film’s stylistic and narrative tidiness can’t help but seem like a missed opportunity, but the sweep of Salomon’s life has undeniable power anyway. Watching this inspirational young woman endure and create powerful works of art in the face of mounting oppression and, eventually, unspeakable horrors can’t help but make a serious impact.

Most of all, the importance of creating art that illustrates the evils of hatred, as that evil takes hold of an alarmingly large number of people, emerges vibrantly with every scene. “Charlotte” may not take the utmost advantage of its material, but what it dares to tackle, it does so successfully, sadly, and memorably.

“Charlotte” opens in US theaters April 22.

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