Dead Europe, adapted by Louise Fox from the novel of the same name by Christos Tsiolkas, tells the disturbing tale of a young Greek-Australian photographer, Isaac (Ewen Leslie, Jewboy and Sleeping Beauty), who, while attending an exhibition of his works, transports his recently deceased father’s ashes from Australia to his ancestral homeland in Greece. Visiting Europe for the first time, Isaac finds it not only a rich environment for future work, but comes to learn about his father’s sinister past involving a young Jewish boy at the end of World War II. Isaac’s world begins to unravel as he journeys from Athens to Paris to Budapest and realizes he cannot escape the ghosts of the past. There is an intense clash of inherent guilt, embedded prejudice, sordid behaviour and personal discovery.
Dead Europe is an odd film, and having not read Tsialkas’ novel I found the narrative difficult to penetrate. The story is episodic, the developments are jarring and often lack context, and rather than simultaneously focus on the two stories – Isaac’s and his father’s - it reveals the latter almost exclusively through testimony. The information Isaac collects about his late father and his family’s past doesn’t feel earned, but falls into his lap often through inexplicable convenience and following some questionable decisions. I feel like the audience is asked to fill in the gaps themselves. Isaac comes to realize that the ghosts of his father’s past – embedded within the architecture of Europe, and the still-prevalent social issues - are making their presence felt.
The storytelling, considering the density of the novel and the slim running time, had its priorities mixed up. I understand that the novel is full of pretty provocative stuff, and incorporating these themes was necessary to convey the sordid world Isaac finds himself in and reveal who Isaac is, but unveiling a little more about Isaac’s family and making Isaac’s procuring of information more of a challenge, would have given the film more depth and made it as convincing in narrative as it was in mood.
On that note, Dead Europe is smartly shot by Germaine McMicking and Krawitz builds a tense, unsettling atmosphere and makes excellent use of the locations, simultaneously capturing the beauty and the ugly side of these picturesque European cities. The intense tone is enhanced by a sensational synth score from Jed Kurzell, who worked on Snowtown.
Dead Europe is a bleak and unpleasant story that eats at your soul; it has left a grimy mark. The daring 80-odd-minute adaptation feels like it is missing many pieces, which is unfortunate, because there is plenty to admire. A beguiling ending ensures it is contemplative and resonating and Leslie and Csokas are strong. Admirers of the novel might come out scratching their heads wondering where the rest of the story is.
Andrew Buckle - follow Andy on Twitter here: @buckle22
Dead Europe, directed by Tony Krawitz (Jewboy, The Tall Man), premiered as part of the official competition at the Sydney Film Festival and prior to its cinema release on November 15 through Transmission Films, it is screening at both the Greek and Jewish International Film Festivals.