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Michelle Thomas

Published November 25th, 2005 | by Michelle Thomas

Everything Is Illuminated Review

Classification: 12A Director: Liev Schreiber Rating: 3.5/5

Based on the novel by wunderkind Jonathan Safran Foer, Everything Is Illuminated is the story of Jonathan Safran Foer himself, played by saucer-eyed Elijah Wood, in search of his family history. Foer is a collector of family memorabilia, and when his dying grandmother (Jana Hrabetova) gives him a photograph of his dead grandfather and a mysterious woman called Augustine, who saved him from the Holocaust, what else can he do but collect them too? So he leaves New York, this odd, quietly bookish young Jewish man, and finds himself in Odessa and in the hands of Odessa Heritage Tours and his translator Alex (Hutz) and driver, Alex’s grandfather (Leskin).

Alex’s family are eccentric. To say the least. Alex is obsessed with American culture and in particular the music and dancing of Michael Jackson. He djs and breakdances in Odessa’s ‘premium’ nightclubs, and in his spare time explains to his younger brother what it means to be a man of the world by showing him porn mags. His elderly grandfather claims to be blind and to this end employs the services of Sammy Davis Junior Junior, a seeing eye bitch and savage/neurotic rescue dog. Jonathan is horrified. He doesn’t like dogs, he’s being driven by a blind man, he doesn’t eat meat, and no-one seems to have the faintest idea where his grandfather’s village Trachimbrod is.

Liev Schreiber’s directorial debut is an ambitious, interesting and funny meditation on identity, family and belonging. It suffers slightly from the usual difficulties inherent in adapting a complex novel for the screen – in the source material there are three stories running parallet – the first being Jonathan and Alex’s journey, the second in Trachinbrod in 1791 and the third being Alex’s letters to Jonathan. Foer is a playful writer who likes to go off on tangents and probably annoys his publishers no end by insisting on having pages of type centred and curly chapter titles and other such typographical whims. The film tries to get this across by having the chapter headings handwritten to Alex’s voice over but has to jettison the parallel timelines and focus on the core story of Jonathan’s search for his grandfather.

Cleverly, Alex, who is a fairly happy-go-lucky type, learns as much about his own history as Jonathan does. In the way that many people who have grown up in an unstable and precarious culture he is incredibly optimistic and very funny. Eugene Hutz, a first-time actor, is hilarious and poignant. Alex loves the English language and uses it in wonderful ways, speaking like a combination of a thesaurus and a character from Dickens. Alex on women: ‘Many girls want to be carnal with me in many good arrangements’; Alex on his looks: ‘I am unequivocally tall.. I have handsome hairs, which are split in the middle… my eyes are blue and resplendent’. This causes great hilarity as Jonathan struggles to understand him and some of the exchanges between the two of them are priceless. It also beautifully illustrates culture shock and the utter uselessness of guide books.

Elijah Wood gives another excellent performance as Jonathan Safran Foer and any danger of Mark Hammill syndrome seems safely past. You no longer look at him and see Frodo Baggins, and he’s been very astute in picking such radically different roles and interesting films since wrapping on The Lord of The Rings.


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