Walking with the Enemy is a well conceived melodrama that sheds light on issues that Hungary and its Jewish population faced coming into the final year of World War II. But it is not a movie I would recommend. At its heart, it is a movie about a man who loses everything during the Nazi invasion, and goes to incredible risk after stealing a Nazi SS officers' uniform to save many of the Jew's in Budepest. Jonas Armstrong plays Elek Cohan, a fictionalized version Pinchas Tibor Rosenbaum, in a well woven narrative that allows Cohan, and thus the viewer, to experience many of the atrocities the Hungarian Jews experienced. It never delves deep into the politics, but when it briefly does, it employs Ben Kingsley to navigate those issues. But all aspects of this movie are wrought with sentimentality and pierced with careful consideration on how war atrocities are portrayed on screen, leaving a relatively lackluster final product.
As a war movie, there is a sense of nostalgia the creeps into every corner of Walking with the Enemy. This is a double edged sword as it makes the movie a somewhat pleasant watch, but it applies cliché after cliché to tug at our emotions. First, a pet-peeve of mine; This movie relies on a wide variety of poor to non-existent accents instead of just subtitling Hungarian. Perhaps this is because the selection of actors that can both act and speak Hungarian is slim, but it's lazy. Next, the love interest Hannah Schoen (played by Hannah Tointon with no dynamic, just a constant pouty prettiness) is introduced in opening scene and carried to final frame. The courtship manages to be rigidly structured, she is always played off Cohans concerns. I admit I even found it offensive that how the SS uniforms are acquired results from Schoens attempted rape. It's a sexual assault that is both projected and eye-rollingly constructed to allow Cohan to save the girl.
The knavery of the Germans are clear (with the redemption of one, of course), as is the presentment of the home grown Hungarian fascist Arrow Cross party. They all look very stern and act accordingly. Townsfolk take to stealing the houses of relocated Jews as well as take to chasing survivors with fire pokers. The love interest drapes over the hero when a friend dies, reminding him gently He is a hero. Cohan forges on in the face of other survivors defiance, to almost always wins. The orphan plays his part in the end. The final confrontation between Cohan, the Arrow Cross and the SS feels shocking only for a moment, then it loses all its weight.
The cinematography is also less than stellar, as the movie feels small. Locations are filmed tightly, on street level. Its riddled with television production values. The only sweeping scene comes from the allied engagement at the bridge, which is nicely done but still suffers from a level of claustrophobia that stifles the entire film. When the Russians invade in the third act, they feel tunneled, pressing in waves through one single building to the next.
Jonas Armstrong does an excellent job with the material. The script offers him a lot of range and he covers the ground solidly. At times he channels the intensity of Christoph Waltz yet can just as quickly tun heals and invoke the vulnerability of Haley Joel Osment. Its a wonderful performance, and holds the center of this film. Around him, Simon Kunz as Jozsef Greenberg brings a true sense of moral obligation and second-guessed heroism to his character. As the love interest's uncle, Simon Dutton's Miklos Schoen manages to steal every scene despite his one dimensional character. He is also center to two of the more interesting directoral decisions. Schmits chooses to fade out during a discussion on how to handle the orphaned child, as it seems he is at a loss to add another emotion level to this Schoen. The second is how Schmidt choose to resolve Miklos Schoen's arc. It feels more frustrating and out of step than any other death in the movie.
Shane Taylor is a surprising scene stealer, playing the son of Kingsleys Regent Horty. As a member of the Hungarian Regency government, he stands shoulder to shoulder with his father to save the country in a what is portrayed as politically impossible situation. Ben Kingsley does do a decent turn in his role, but he is not given lot of screen time, so he never develops a compelling presence. It should be noted that the Regency Government, through father and son, are played quite sympathetically to their situation with the Nazi's. The viewer is given the impression that it is only in the twilight hours of the war that Hungary were forced to deal with the Nazis, as it is hardly beneficial to screenwriter Kenny Golde's narrative that Hungary had been an ally of the Axis and profiteers of Nazi power since the late thirties.
By and large this is a film that hints Mark Schmidt can direct. It certainly shows that Jonas Armstrong can act. Its a shame he displays these chops in a movie that is so pedestrian. Golde's screen writing is riddled with cliché, but he can look forward to a career writing Lifetime movies. I have serious questions as to why it was decided to fictionalize Rosenbaum to such an extent. While it is nice to have a film that explores Hungary's involvement in WWII, changing significance elements (such as, Rosenbaum stole Arrow Cross uniforms to save fellow Jews) wouldn't be necessary to a better writer. And the final scene is a faux tear-jerker of the worst variety. While it is always important to reflect on the horrors of WWII and the Holocaust, this crew decided to rehash too many tropes done better and with more impact in earlier films.