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Insidious Propriety

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White Ribbon' Unveils Brutality Beneath Idyllic Fa

Austrian director Michael Haneke ("Caché," "The Time of the Wolf," "The Piano Player," "Code Unknown") has earned a prestigious — if sometimes controversial — reputation in the international film community for his frequently provocative work exploring the darker side of human nature. His latest film, "The White Ribbon," won three prizes at the 2009 Cannes Film Festival: the coveted Palme d'Or, the FIPRESCI Prize, and the Cinema Prize of the French National Education System.

At first glance, "The White Ribbon" appears to be completely different from the director's previous film, "Funny Games," the English-language remake of Haneke's own German-language original. Set in a modern American town full of vacation homes owned by affluent families, "Funny Games" relates how two 20-something criminals horrifically terrorize their victims for pretty much no apparent reason.

"The White Ribbon" takes place in a pre-World War I Austrian village, focusing mostly on members of the working class. It could take a few minutes for the viewer to adjust to the somewhat alien environment, in which characters dressed in period costumes speak to each other in a rather formal, reserved, usually polite manner. This small, close-knit community appears to be idyllic at first, at least to a certain degree.

Yet all is not well in this land. Strange incidents have been accumulating that have led to damage, injuries and even death. The film's progression reveals startling brutalities in this seemingly proper society. The results of those injustices have probably caused a pushback, leading to the recent breakout of crime. But the likely culprits are far from what you might expect.

In an insidious way, the subject matter of "The White Ribbon" is not that far off from "Funny Games." Although "The White Ribbon" is far less graphically violent, it's equally disturbing in a subtler manner.

The White Ribbon

("Das Weisse Band – Eine Deutsche Kindergeschichte")

(German with subtitles; 145 min.)

Landmark's E Street Cinema

Opens Fri., Feb. 12

4.5 out of 5 stars

Conflicted 'Creation'

"Creation," the latest film from British director Jon Amiel ("The Singing Detective," Entrapment"), provides a touching examination of the agonizing struggles faced by groundbreaking biologist Charles Darwin (Brit Paul Bettany, fresh off a turn in "The Young Victoria") as he sought to finish his paradigm-shifting "On the Origin of Species." Darwin had a highly religious wife Emma (American Jennifer Connelly, Bettany's wife off screen as well) who didn't exactly approve of his work. On a daily basis, he was made keenly aware of the clash between science and faith that surrounded the advancement of his theory of evolution, which conflicted against the predominant Christian belief in creationism.

Connelly delivers a stirring performance as a loving wife whose devotion to her husband is tempered by her devotion to her God. Frankly, she's afraid Darwin will go to hell and face eternal damnation for writing his blasphemy. That pressure, coupled with Darwin's poor physical health, has prevented him from finishing his work for years.

Meanwhile, Bettany is quietly powerful playing a man tortured by demons and the full knowledge that his destiny would brand him a heretic by many in his community — as displayed by Darwin's arguments with a family friend, Rev. Innes (portrayed with calm but firm conviction by British Jeremy Northam) over Darwin's beliefs versus those of the Church.

Scenes of Darwin's existential angst — whether he's by himself, with his wife, or taking visits from colleagues pushing him onward — are interspersed with touching family moments with his children. Particularly charming are his interactions with his favorite child, 10-year-old Annie (a precocious Martha West), who's fond of repeatedly hearing the exotic stories Darwin tells about his scientific and anthropological excursions to foreign locales. It's Annie's untimely death from illness that finally, at least eventually, provides the impetus for Darwin to finish his life's work.

Creation

(English; 108 min.; scope)

Landmark's E Street Cinema

4 out of 5 stars

Leo Tolstoy's 'Last Station'

"The Last Station," directed by American Michael Hoffman, tells the story about the last days of Leo Tolstoy, the legendary Russian novelist. Hoffman's adapted screenplay is based on a novel by Jay Parini. One of my first impressions of "The Last Station" was that it seemed a bit jarring to have all these Russians played by actors speaking English, mostly with British and Irish accents. Perhaps largely because of that, they seemed to act somewhat as if they were still British rather than what I've learned to perceive as Russian.

It took me a while to get used to that, and I guess I never fully did. Still, the performances by a talented ensemble cast are strong — if a bit over the top in a melodramatic theatrical manner. The handsome production does provide a revealing look at the life of a celebrity in early 20th-century Russia. Tolstoy's existence has some striking similarities to that of a modern-day American president, complete with an entourage and paparazzi trailing behind him.

In the twilight of his life, Count Tolstoy (British Christopher Plummer) has become a symbolic leader of a utopian social movement (the Tolstoyans) run by the scheming and manipulative Vladimir Chertkov (Paul Giamatti, the one American amidst the bunch of Brits), attracting followers to a commune near Tolstoy's estate. Tolstoy's wife Sofya (British Helen Mirren) is rather skeptical about Chertkov's influence on her husband, and she's understandably afraid that Chertkov plans to change Tolstoy's will to deprive his family of the rights to his copyrights, turning them over to the movement. Yet on Chertkov's side is Tolstoy's daughter Sasha (British Anne-Marie Duff).

Into this mix comes young Valentin (Scottish James McAvoy, Duff's husband in real life), who becomes close to both the count and the countess. Valentin even becomes part of a love story. Tolstoyans have a vow of celibacy, but the virginal Valentin is seduced by his cheery comrade Masha (Irish Kerry Condon). Meanwhile, everybody's posturing and emotions heighten as Tolstoy nears his death.

The Last Station

(English; 145 min.)

Landmark's E Street Cinema

Opens Fri., Feb. 5

3.5 out of 5 stars

About the Author

Ky N. Nguyen is the film reviewer for The Washington Diplomat.

Last Edited on July 2, 2014