‘Resistance’ Film Review: Jesse Eisenberg Stretches Himself as Marcel Marceau, Nazi Fighter

The “Social Network” star’s French accent might be iffy, but he handles both human drama and silent clowning with great skill

Last Updated: March 25, 2020 @ 10:56 AM

Here’s the case for “Resistance”: You literally can’t leave your house right now, it’s a reasonably diverting drama available to stream, and it features Jesse Eisenberg, Ed Harris, Édgar Ramírez, Clémence Poésy, Géza Röhrig, and Bella “Lady Mormont” Ramsey.

Here’s the case against it: Jonathan Jakubowicz’s drama doesn’t add as much to the beyond-crowded World War II genre as it could despite the genuinely compelling true story on which it’s based.

Eisenberg stars as Marcel Marceau, a real-life mime whose Chaplin-esque act becomes a balm for a depressingly large group of Jewish orphans; the reliably neurotic screen presence has many gifts, but a few minutes of this movie is enough to prove that French accents aren’t one of them. Look past that admittedly distracting flaw, and it’s a charming performance vaguely reminiscent of Roberto Benigni’s in “Life Is Beautiful” (which would qualify as faint praise for some but not this defender of that surprise Oscar triumph).

That the expressions, gestures, and comforting cleverness of Marceau’s schtick come so naturally to the actor is a pleasant surprise, not to mention a marked departure from the vibe he usually embodies; who could have imagined the Jesse Eisenberg of “The Social Network” or “The Squid and the Whale” consoling and entertaining war orphans? In that sense, “Resistance” is inadvertently timely — it’s about the importance of entertainment in trying times, after all.

At least the first act is. That’s when the film is at its best, as it takes place entirely before Germany invades Poland and the Strasbourg-based orphanage is forced to evacuate to the South of France. “Resistance” then becomes a much more typical WWII narrative, which is a shame; shortly after establishing a unique space for itself, the movie reverts to the familiar.

No longer content to be a humorous mentor, Marceau joins — you guessed it — la résistance once the war truly kicks off. Klaus Barbie (Matthias Schweighöfer), an especially heinous Gestapo chief known to history as the Butcher of Lyon, emerges as the primary villain at the same time, setting off a cat-and-mouse dynamic that’s never as thrilling as it’s meant to be. Jakubowicz most recently directed the boxing drama “Hands of Stone,” and though he handles this story with tenderness, its dramatic heft never feels especially, well, hefty.

It’s no spoiler to say that Ramírez and Harris have less than five minutes of combined screentime, but the quality of Bella Ramsey’s performance more than makes up for their absence. Her affecting turn as Elsbeth, an orphan whose parents’ death at the hands of the Nazis opens the film, proves that her prowess on “Game of Thrones” was no one-off and that great things can be expected of the teenage thespian in the future. She’s expressive and melancholic without ever laying it on too thick, and even boasts a better French accent than the film’s leading man.

Eisenberg is ultimately the anchor, however, and for good reason. It’s easy to imagine a world in which his performance would have made its way onto year-end lists and awards consideration were it not for that unfortunate accent and the relatively low profile of “Resistance” itself, as he inhabits Marceau in a way we haven’t seen him do before.

His best work comes at the mime’s first real public performance, where he dons the traditional white makeup and silently mimes his way through the war itself: Without a single word, he articulates the film’s point more movingly than any monologue ever could.

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