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‘Charlotte’ Review: Keira Knightley Voices a Doomed Artist in Lifeless Animated Film About WWII

TIFF: Charlotte Salomon was murdered at Auschwitz. The radical work of art she completed in her short life makes you wish for a much better film.

“Charlotte”

Courtesy of the Toronto International Film Festival

Charlotte” is a gentle animated biopic of the German-Jewish artist Charlotte Salomon, murdered at 26 in Auschwitz. The movie, directed by Eric Warin and Tahir Rana, is sweet on the surface. Who doesn’t want to celebrate an undersung artist whose magnum opus, a story told in over 700 paintings bound together in a book, was arguably the world’s first graphic novel?

However, the film itself is a regrettable one: a movie that doesn’t do justice by its subject. At first, audiences may think “Charlotte” will render Salomon’s boldly expressionistic colors, shapes, and narrative flourishes in animated form. Perhaps it will be like “Loving Vincent,” but a new take on an artist who deserves more attention rather than another look at the world’s most overexposed painter.

Sadly, it is not. With only the faintest attempts at replicating Salomon’s graphic style, “Charlotte” very much shows its directors’ lack of feature animation directing experience. (Between Warin and Rana, only Warin had a co-directing credit on a previous feature, the 2016 animation “Leap!”) The animation on display is stilted and lifeless — simplistic, rather than simple — looks like a direct-to-VHS cheapie from the ’90s. There’s nothing here more sophisticated than Jimmy Murakami’s 2001 version of “A Christmas Carol,” which inexplicably featured not only Kate Winslet in a prominent vocal part but also singing in an accompanying music video to promote the film.

“Charlotte” astounds for the same reason: How on earth did this movie attract such a starry voicecast? Keira Knightley voices Salomon (Marion Cotillard handles the role in the French-language dub of this Ontario-based production, which has no less than Xavier Dolan as an executive producer); Jim Broadbent, Brenda Blethyn, Mark Strong, Sophie Okonedo, Eddie Marsan, and the late Helen McCrory also lend their talents.

All of that wattage can’t rescue “Charlotte.” Each character has the most basic framework, with expression reduced to perhaps two elements at a time: a movement of the irises, a crinkling of the nose. The facial scar of Charlotte’s great love and eventual husband, Alexander (Sam Claflin), works overtime in establishing his character. There’s little shading on each of the characters; arms, for instance, are rendered so straight and slim as to not be recognizably human.

Perhaps this is all made up for with daring landscapes? No, not even when the action transfers from Nazi Germany to a sun-kissed estate on the Cote d’Azur. The paintings Salomon created became her autobiographical “Life? Or Theater?,” a remarkable project telling a story across hundreds of artworks, but the moments when the film brings them to life are few and far between.

Who is “Charlotte” for? If you’re a newcomer to her work, you’ll be lost for more than an hour of the film’s 90-minute running time as to why Salomon is significant — why this story is being told about her rather than the six million others who perished in the Holocaust. Its depiction of the stripping-away of her rights in Germany is perfunctory. Her escape from the country is not in the tiniest bit dramatic. You already have to know about her artistic achievements to really be hooked. “Charlotte” isn’t so much a Wikipedia page in animated movie form; it’s actually much less interesting than the experience of reading Salomon’s Wikipedia page.

Is the film for children? Perhaps that’s why most of the actual violence inflicted by Nazis occurs offscreen. Perhaps that’s why the widely speculated suggestion that Salomon was sexually abused by her grandfather is left out, despite him being possibly the most important other character. Perhaps that’s why the film’s two post-coitus scenes are so chaste, the naked bodies on display rendered as smooth as the angels’. Still: what film with multiple post-coitus scenes is going to be for children? And the film’s extensive exploration of the Salomon family’s multiple suicides disqualifies it from that possibility entirely.

It’s not a film for adults, though, either. Its profound moments are merely fridge-magnet-ready slogans, such as “What’s important is not that life loves us, but that we love life.” The depth of its characters is ink-and-paint deep. It’s deeply frustrating, because anyone watching “Charlotte” will likely want to like — even, love — it so very much. Any expectation that Salomon’s profound story might be depicted in grown-up, searching animation that’s still all too rare, is quickly dashed. Instead of being brought to a place of soulful contemplation, “Charlotte” merely becomes cinematic Ambien. What a tragedy.

Grade: D

“Charlotte” premiered at the 2021 Toronto International Film Festival. It is currently seeking distribution.

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