Movie Review: A Painter’s Holocaust story told in animation, “Charlotte”

Not every animated biography of a painter will have the ambition and artistry of “Loving Vincent,” but if you’re going to the trouble of telling the story with painting — even digital painting — it seems as if you should at least try.

And if you’re pitching your tale as the life of someone whose 769 “Life? Or Theatre?” paintings tell the tortured story of her family, and taken together have been described as “the first graphic novel,” you at least owe it to the subject to mimic her style more than the drab and downbeat “Charlotte,” a new film about the young German painter and Jewish Holocaust victim Charlotte Salomon.

Animators Tahir Rana (TV’s “Welcome to the Wayne”) and Éric Warin (“Leap!”) give us a cursory overview of Salomon’s life from the mid-1930s to 1943, showing her as a witness to the horrific rise of Naziism, affluent enough to escape it and talented enough to show the world glimpses of it as a backdrop to her family’s own tortured history.

Here are Brown shirt thugs busting up an operatic recital and a growing tide of anti-Semitism that invades even academia. Charlotte visits the Nazis’ infamous “Degenerate (Jewish) Art” exhibition, endures Kristallnacht and rides out the beginning to of the war, sent to live with a wealthy friend in the South of France.

An A-list voice cast tells her story, with Keira Knightley in the title role, Eddie Marsan as her Berlin doctor/father and Helen McCrory as her singer/stepmother. Jim Broadbent and Brenda Blethyn voice her grandparents, the first family members to flee to exile, first in Italy, then after an abrupt invitation from an American expat (Sophie Okonedo), to Nice and southern France.

Knightley has to use her voice make Charlotte an interesting character when the understated animation fails to bring her to life. Saddled with banal dialogue pointlessly laden with “Großmutter” and “Großvater,” the only German words her character uses, Charlotte comes off as colorless, and given the notoriety Salomon’s life story has taken on, we feel we’re seeing a very adult tale watered down for the medium.

Her stepmother had designs on Charlotte becoming a “cutter,” a seamstress and tailor. But Charlotte turns her fashion school skills towards fine art, even gaining admission to art school.

As the nightmarish rise of the Nazis puts greater and greater restraints of her ambitions and her family (Dad is hauled off and beaten), she begins a torrid affair with an older man (Mark Strong), her mother’s voice coach and a World War I veteran.

Taking refuge on the Cote d’Azur, she takes another lover and copes with her increasingly embittered and unpleasant grandfather — “You’re not in this world just to PAINT, Charlotte!” and learns of her family’s darkest secrets, although some of those are left out of the film.

Most animated films give us a reason they’re animated, although Richard Linklater’s fanciful “Apollo 10 1/2,” like his similarly rotoscoped “Waking Life,” pushed the boundaries of that. “Charlotte,” despite the occasional simulated watercolored interstitial, never makes that case on artistic grounds.

And while not all Holocaust sagas are created equal, an uncensored, grim realities and all treatment of Salomon’s life would certainly be novel enough to warrant the telling. That’s a case “Charlotte” never makes.

Rating: unrated, violence, nudity, adult situations

Cast: The voices of Keira Knightley, Jim Broadbent, Mark Strong, Sophie Okonedo, Brenda Blethyn, Sam Claflin, Henry Czerny and Eddie Marsan.

Credits: Directed by Tahir Rana and Éric Warin, scripted by Erik Rutherford and David Bezmozgis. A Good Deeds release.

Running time: 1:32

About Roger Moore

Movie Critic, formerly with McClatchy-Tribune News Service, Orlando Sentinel, published in Spin Magazine, The World and now published here, Orlando Magazine, Autoweek Magazine
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