Everything Is Illuminated Review

With his first novel, Everything Is Illuminated, Jonathan Safran Foer became a wunderkind of the US literary fiction scene. The novel is a mix of magic realism and games with language as a young North American Jew (using a fairly standard postmodernist device, named Jonathan Safran Foer, played in the film by Elijah Wood) journeys to the Ukraine to find the woman who saved his grandfather from the Nazis in 1942. Along with him for the journey are a Ukrainian guide, Alex (Eugene Hutz) whose command of English is decidedly idiosyncratic, Alex’s blind grandfather and his “seeing eye bitch”, a deranged dog called Sammy Davis Jr Jr…

If you’re filming a novel that relies so heavily for its effect on language, as first-time writer-director (and former actor) Liev Schreiber has, then you need to find a cinematic style in keeping with that of the original. Unfortunately, that’s where Everything Is Illuminated falls down: Schreiber cannot reconcile the broad comedy and larger-than-life characters of the first half, with the poignant revelations of the second. As a result, the film’s final half hour or so drags on far longer than it should. It’s a difficult thing to say about any film that deals with the Holocaust, but Everything Is Illuminated feels overlong and underpowered.

Another problem is in the casting of Elijah Wood. Jonathan is a buttoned-up, repressed character, but Wood isn’t able to make much more of him than a blank. This is particularly noticeable next to Eugene Hutz’s scene-stealing as Alex, with his street Kiev costume and lingo-mashing narration. Hutz is also with a band called Gogol Bordello, who provide a rousing song over the final credits. The real Jonathan Safran Foer can be seen as the leaf blower in the cemetery in the opening scene.


Warners’s DVD – encoded for Region 1 only – is visually and aurally what you would expect from a DVD release of a brand-new film. The transfer is anamorphic in a ratio of 1.78:1, opened up slightly from the original 1.85:1. It’s sharp and colourful, and the darker scenes have good shadow detail and no artefacting that I could detect.

The soundtrack is Dolby Digital 5.1, in a mix of English and Ukrainian with some Russian, the latter two with fixed English subtitles. There are no problems with clarity, and the surrounds are used unobtrusively but effectively, to enhance the atmosphere and to service Paul Cantelon’s score. There are twenty-six chapter stops.

The extras, on the other hand, seem a missed opportunity. We could have had a commentary from Schreiber, or some input from Foer as to the background to his story. Instead, we get 18:29 of “additional scenes” (in non-anamorphic 1.85:1). None of these have any commentary or notes as to why they were deleted, though its not hard to see that they are redundant. The only other extra is the trailer, in anamorphic 1.78:1 and Dolby Digital 2.0 Surround, running 2:26.

At a time when too many “independent” films are little more than calling cards for Hollywood, Everything Is Illuminated is to be commended for its ambition. It’s clearly a personal project and may well provoke personal reactions, though unfortunately it didn’t work for me.

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