I have never heard of Safran Froer's book before watching the film, which I went to see as a second choice, I'll be honest. I tried to rush a screening of the Duelist (far and away the most fun way to see films at the Toronto Film Festival is just to turn up at a screening and hope to get a last minute ticket) but failed, and Everything is Illuminated was on. Considering I just liked the look of Elijah Wood's style in it (bottle thick glasses, cheap black suit) I decided to give it a go.
Having never heard of the book, I can't really comment on Everything is Illuminated as an adaptation. I can say that after watching the film I left the cinema with absolutely no urge to read the book, whereas reading an amazon.co.uk review of the book before beginning this review (just as background) suddenly gave me a terrible urge to. It makes it apparent that this film, while cleverly keeping the unusual Ukranian-English narration from character Alex Jr. (in the form of letters to Elijah Wood's character, Jonathan) which is chock full of very amusing obscure terminology and mistranslations, loses a great deal of the book, such as sections detailing life in the Ukraine as a Jew before World War II.
What remains is a very accomplished and enjoyable film, but there is a lingering feeling of something missing, of something lacking. The story of Jonathan, 'the Collector', a failing writer obsessed with collecting random objects held by his family members and storing them in Ziploc bags (bit of an odd tie in). He has only one objects belonging to his grandfather, Safran Froer – until he is gifted a photo of his grandfather with the mysterious woman who he attributes escaping the Nazis to. So Jonathan travels to the Ukraine to find this woman with the help of Alex Jr., Alex. Sr. (his grandfather) and Sammy Davis Jr. Jr. (Alex Sr. 'seeing eye bitch', doted on by Alex Sr. despite the fact he isn't blind and she is completely demented.). The film blows it's load somewhat early with an incredibly entertaining scene introducing Alex. Jr., who loves Michael Jackson, Kangol hats, 'being carnal' with sexy ladies and is superb at break dancing. Everything Is Illuminated, can't, and in fact does not, attempt to keep up this level of excitement, and the scene only serves to highlight how utterly characterless Jonathan is. He has a quirk (the collecting) but nothing else. Well, he's a bit scared of dogs. The film is largely carried by Alex Jr., played by Eugene Hutz, whose Balkan punk band Gogol Bordello make up a significant part of the soundtrack.
The soundtrack makes up a large part of the film, with the energetic, upbeat tracks from Gogol Bordello give certain scenes a gleefully deranged feel, and tracks from Balkan Brass band Kocani Orkestar, Tin Hat Trio and guitar work from Marc Ribot rounding out a very strong and unique soundtrack.
The subject matter, the search for information about people who were lost in the holocaust and the fact that a great deal of people and states in Europe were complicit in this, does not really come to a head till the end of Everything Is Illuminated, and it's almost a surprise when it does. The 'illumination' is the end of Jonathan's search and the revelation to us of what his grandfather escaped – with such serious matter dealt with in an entirely fitting manner. However, a great deal of important information feels un-illuminated when the film ends, though perhaps it is information which would become clear through repeat viewings.
Everything is Illuminated is an entirely competent film, that does successfully straddle humour, pathos and a serious subject – however it never really soars.