PUBLISHED : Thursday, 20 March, 2003, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 20 March, 2003, 12:00am

The Pianist

Starring: Adrien Brody, Emilia Fox,

Frank Finlay, Ed Stoppard

Director: Roman Polanski

Category: IIA

Roman Polanski's much-heralded film marks an emotive return to the Poland of the director's youth. Its subject matter, the Holocaust, is something many thought Polanski would never touch, and it is a subject that can sometimes be weighed down by its very history. And while you never escape feeling this weight hanging over the film at all times - and the burden of the many such projects we have seen before - it is in the end a triumph, and perhaps the crowning achievement of Polanski's long and storied career.

The film is based on the true story of pianist Wladyslaw Szpilman (Adrien Brody) and tells of how he survived the German occupation of Warsaw. Szpilman at times seems almost oblivious to the fate that is about to come crashing down upon his family and friends. He survives mostly by lurking in the shadows, watching through windows as the ghetto uprising explodes and is extinguished, moving from flat to flat to escape the Germans. And Polanksi resists any temptation to over-play his images, which are brilliantly unveiled in stark, grim tones by cinematographer Pawel Edelman.

The director's detached style is what in the end gives The Pianist such resonance. The story is enough so no flourishes or conceits are needed or indeed called upon. There is horror enough in what unfolds before us - the brutish Germans playing with the lives of the Jews, the collaborators turning against their own kind, and the systematic destruction of the city itself.

The angular Brody simply embodies the helplessness of his people in the face of such terror. It is through his eyes that we become witnesses to the abominations, and it is a brilliant portrayal most worthy of his Oscar nomination.

The music Szpilman was famed for is kept away from him for most of the film's duration (in one scene he finds a piano, but his fingers have to dance inches above the key for fear the music will betray him). But when it comes back, it comes back in haunting fashion.

Polanski has taken a tough subject and produced his master-stroke, an impassioned picture of the hells of life and how hope can somehow help us find an escape.

The Pianist opens in Hong Kong today.