As fine a movie as it is, there's a certain temptation to overrate "The Pianist" — to make something more of it.
At least part of that has to do with the fact that this World War II drama comes from director Roman Polanski, a once highly esteemed filmmaker who certainly needed this film to demonstrate that his skills hadn't completely deserted him.
Mission accomplished, although for a film that's based on a true story, this one seems a bit too heavily fictionalized — as if certain events and situations have been dramatized a bit too much. As a result, there's a certain element of realism that seems to be missing.
Still, there's no denying that "The Pianist" tells a fascinating, compelling story. Nor can you overlook the power of the lead performance by fast-rising American character actor Adrien Brody, who plays the title character, classically trained pianist Wladyslaw Szpilman.
As a Polish Jew, Szpilman and his peace-loving family are drawn directly into World War II. Thanks to the Nazi occupation of their country, the Szpilmans and other Jewish families are forced out of their homes and into the Warsaw ghettos.
Still, they're thankful to be together as a family. But even that is short-lived when they are rounded up and sent to concentration camp — except for Wladyslaw, who is spared by a Nazi collaborator and former friend.
His continued survival isn't a sure thing, however. Wladyslaw is forced to hide out in abandoned apartments, to go days and weeks without food and water. And things go from bad to extremely dire when the fighting between the Nazis and Russian forces becomes more intense.
Some of this may seem a bit too fantastic to believe, but a good portion of the story is based on Szpilman's remembrances. And it's clear by Polanski's subtle storytelling that this tale is near and dear to his heart. (As a Polish Jew, Polanski's family had its own share of survival stories).
The already-slight Brody lost weight to emphasize the terrible physical and emotional toil these experiences took on the real-life Szpilman. And his performance is the film's obvious standout. But the supporting cast turns in terrific work as well, especially Frank Finlay and German character actor Thomas Kretschmann, whose role is crucial in the film's final third.
"The Pianist" is rated R for graphic scenes of wartime violence (including explosive mayhem, executions and gunfire), flashes of graphic gore and occasional use of strong profanity (some sex-related) and ethnic slurs. Running time: 148 minutes.