Ben Kingsley classes up “Walking with the Enemy,” an ambitious if muddled World War II drama about the Holocaust in Hungary. Kingsley plays Miklos Horthy, regent of Hungary during the war. He gives the leader, an ally of Nazi Germany, a complexity — balancing cooperation with Hitler with a self-righteous neutrality about the nation's Jews — that Horthy himself would approve.
The movie around that small role is just as complicated, if clumsily simplistic, the sort of film where the sweep of history and a vast array of characters almost obliterate what is a simple story.
The enormity of the Holocaust, the scale of the horror, the depth of the depravity, the simple fact that it's a period piece requiring settings, costumes, trains, trucks, tanks and motorcycles, would be daunting to any filmmaker. But first-time director Mark Schmidt, with assorted screenwriters, plunged right in, staging combat scenes and mass executions, throwing in a love story or good measure. The history is a bit fuzzy, but at least they got the World War II movie tropes right.
Irish actor Jonas Armstrong is Elek, a Jewish college student whose swing-dancing good times come to an end in early 1944, as Hungary comes under the administration of Nazi SS Col. Adolph Eichmann (Charles Hubbell). The war has turned against Germany, but Eichmann has arrived to ensure that Hungary's Jews, mostly protected under the Horthy regime, face the same fate as those of Poland, France and the rest of Europe.
Elek, Miklos (Simon Dutton) and Ferenc (Mark Wells) struggle to adapt to a rapidly deteriorating situation. Elek tries to convince his father, a village rabbi, to see the warning signs and flee with the family. One thing “Walking with the Enemy” gets right is how dearly bought information was in Nazi Europe. Kept in the dark, people were willing to believe anything to avoid considering the worst.
As Budapest comes under the jurisdiction of the infamous Nazi Col. Skorzeny (Burn Gorman of “Pacific Rim”), Elek sees friends and family arrested, tortured and killed. He and a rotating collection of friends hurl themselves into helping as many as possible escape, starting with distributing Swiss exit visas and eventually donning SS uniforms to free prisoners and save more lives.
Of course, Elek has time for love, courting Hannah (Hannah Tointon) between acts of derring-do. And that eye-roller is nothing when compared to the dialogue, which sounds as if it came from a WWII Movie Dialogue Generator, and not from nine credited writers. Every scene has a groaner.
“Don't worry. Nothing will happen. I promise.” (Hello, Holocaust?)
“Ach, practicing your German again, Elek?” (That'll come in handy.)
Seventy years of movies about Nazis and their (Hungarian) collaborators have not altered their cliches.
“Colonel, your reputation precedes you.” “If I may be so bold ...” “We have our ORDERS.”
Only Kingsley comes out unscathed, lured into this project by the scant few good scenes and the very best lines.
“The Jews have Eichmann,” Horthy intones. “We have Skorzeny. All will be tested.”
After “Walking with the Enemy,” two hours and four minutes of torture, rape and mass shootings, you'll feel you've been tested, too.