Everything is Illuminated is an example of how adapting a novel into a film can really work. It takes Jonathan Safran Foer’s story and presents it very effectively on screen, featuring literary devices like chapter breakdowns and narration but refusing to feel too airy and romanticized like many novels do on film. Maybe it’s Foer’s story that helps this, but the film can easily stand on its own, a task that’s commendable when adapting an edgy book whose main draw is its unusual style of writing.
The story focuses on a Jewish-American man in his early 20s who collects items both sentimental and seemingly-worthless in plastic bags to remind him of everything he experiences. His collecting has instilled in him an interest in his family’s history, and so he departs for the Ukraine to find out more about his grandfather’s experiences there during the Holocaust. His specific goal is to find the Ukrainian woman who helped his grandfather survive and get to America, and so he hires a company that specializes in this very thing. The company is actually not a company at all, but a single family with one car and very little expertise on the subject. His driver is the grandfather in the family, and the grandson, the same age as the American, comes along as a translator.
The film is incredible on a visual level, a combination of director Liev Schreiber and cinematographer Matthew Libatique. Everything about the look of the film, from the camera angles to the colors and movement, is simply brilliant. Libatique’s style has proven to be very adaptable, with his work ranging from Requiem for a Dream to Josie and the Pussycats. In Everything is Illuminated, he relies more on the distinctiveness of the colors than on a fast-moving camera, but at the same time manages to make long car scenes look extremely vibrant.
Libatique’s position as one of the top cinematographers of the future is obvious. Schreiber’s part in the visuals is more surprising, however, given that this is his first directing effort. A very recognizable mostly-supporting actor who’s played everyone from Cotton Weary in Scream to Orson Welles in RKO 281, Schreiber adapted the screenplay from Foer’s novel himself and stayed on to direct. Refreshingly, he didn’t cast a small role for himself, instead staying behind the camera the whole time like so few actors-turned-directors do.
The acting is left up to Elijah Wood, playing the American, Eugene Hutz, a punk musician making his film debut as the translator and Boris Leskin as Hutz’s grandfather. The best thing about the performances is how they unfold throughout the film. In the beginning, they feel stiff and one dimensional. Wood is quiet, almost inaccessible, while Hutz is an outgoing and not-so-bright Ukrainian youth. Leskin’s character is almost unbearably predictable during the film’s first half, but ends up as the deepest and most intriguing by the end.
Likewise, the entire film changes tone as it progresses. The beginning and middle “road trip” parts are quirky and enjoyable, often made very funny by Hutz’s accent and goofy demeanor, but there’s nothing particularly special about them. Towards the end, the trio reaches their destination and the film picks up, becoming more than a beautifully-shot performance piece and really turning into something unique.
Everything is Illuminated is a film about the Holocaust, but never takes the audience to the concentration camps or shows much violence. It’s set in the present day and works so well because it doesn’t take on the body of the Holocaust but a tiny shred of it. It’s one man looking for his grandfather’s story. This ordinary premise, set against something that is the complete opposite of ordinary, the Holocaust, is what makes Everything is Illuminated a really interesting and fascinating film. By the end, there is nothing ordinary about it.
Shawn Wines can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.