Irena’s Vow Review | True Courage

by Andrew Parker

A respectful, stately looking, and melodramatic historical drama about one woman’s selfless act of compassion, Irena’s Vow doesn’t bring many new ideas to the table, but it certainly tells a great story. Based on the true story of Irena Gut Opdyke, a Polish housekeeper forced to work for a high ranking Nazi official after the fall of Warsaw in 1939, this latest film from Canadian director Louise Archambault (Gabrielle, And the Birds Rained Down) and screenwriter Dan Gordon never fully realizes its true potential to move and captivate, but it does succeed at being a basically well meaning inspirational tale of courage under pressure and threat of death. Irena’s Vow feels like its only scratching the surface of a better story (especially in the final act which treats a major life development like an afterthought), but what Archambault and company end up with is still pretty good.

Irena Gut (Sophie Nélisse) was studying to become a nurse when invading Nazi forces rolled into her community and forced people into working for the Third Reich. Irena was initially tasked with working in a munitions factory, but when that job turned out to be too physically demanding, she was shifted over to supervising food service and a tailoring operation that used local Jews as free labour, a place where mostly all of the “conscripted” workers have lied about their sewing skills. When Irena gets word that the Nazi forces are aiming to eradicate all Jews in the area by July 22 – right about the time she will be transferring jobs yet again to become the personal housekeeper for Nazi Major Rugmer (Dougray Scott) – she puts together a plan to shield the laundry workers from certain death. Irena stealthily and difficultly finds a way to hide the dozen or so Jews right under the nose of Major Rugmer inside his palatial new mansion.

The story of Irena’s Vow – spun off from Gordon’s play – is ripe for adaptation. It’s tied into history, but also a curious footnote from a time when acts of great charity and tremendous cruelty were almost in too large of supply to keep adequate track of. It’s a story often overlooked, but one still rich in inspiration and empowerment. It’s also a hard film to tell with any sort of a budget, primarily because the real life figures never rubbed elbows with the more infamous leaders of the time. It’s a story about everyday people fighting to survive another day, and the looming threat of being discovered as a liar or traitor. Irena’s Vow comes about its suspense and tension rather naturally, and Archambault nicely recreates the time period by working on location in Poland. Even if Irena’s Vow can’t afford the trappings of a true period epic, there’s still plenty of authenticity to be found.

And there are few better performers that could be tasked with bringing authenticity to Irena’s Vow than Nélisse, a talent whose career is just really starting, but has proven herself more than capable in leading and supporting roles. Nélisse taps into Irena’s compassion and fears quite brilliantly, giving Archambault and the supporting cast a solid emotional baseline to work from. Even when Irena’s Vow is verging on the manipulative or overly melodramatic, Nélisse’s performance keeps a sense of level headed coolness and confidence. Nélisse has instincts that are often pin-point accurate, which is perfect for a character that’s always reading the room and the level of danger or unrest around her. Instead of merely depicting Irena as a good person who did great things, Nélisse shows the steps necessary to make such acts of courage a reality. Nélisse also compensates for the fact that many of the Jewish characters are underdeveloped in terms of overall depth, but whenever any of them is given a scene to interact with Irena, the lead actress springs to life and makes each one of them seem important and valuable, a necessity for making this story even more compelling.

Nélisse’s performance helps Archambault mightily at points during Irena’s Vow, especially when Gordon (Wyatt Earp, Murder in the First, Surf Ninjas, Passenger 57) goes back to the well a few too many times. The numerous near misses encountered by Irena and those under her care – nosy SS officers, blackmailers, a pregnant woman with a cough – are laid on thick and sometimes heavy handedly. Although there’s a keen sense of the survival skills and ingenuity needed for Irena and the Jews under her care, a lot of the situations feel like padding, especially in the late going when the housekeeper is forced into faking a relationship with her boss to keep the ruse afloat. And amid all this padding is a somewhat rosier, sanitized look at being a Jew during World War II, which is only occasionally punctuated with shocking moments of violence and threats.

But despite the storytelling bumps and sometimes overly glossy sheen, Irena’s Vow still hits the appropriately inspirational and stirring beats. The main goal of Archambault’s film is to make the viewer’s jaw drop in amazement that Irena’s risky plan actually worked, and that mission is more than accomplished through the power of its lead performance and an overall degree of respectability that cuts through some of the more maudlin touches that are inherent in the script. It’s a film that’s just good enough to be memorable, which is great for a story about a woman worth remembering.

Irena’s Vow opens in select Canadian cities on Friday, April 19, 2024.

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