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Euronews Culture's Film of the Week: 'Treasure' - Stephen Fry can't save this mawkish misfire

Treasure Copyright FilmNation
Copyright FilmNation
By David Mouriquand
Published on
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This frustratingly aimless road movie attempts to delve into hereditary trauma and the legacy of the Holocaust. Its well-meaning efforts are undercut by a script that makes the central protagonist completely insufferable.


When it was announced that German director Julia von Heinz was going to adapt Australian novelist Lily Brett’s semi-autobiographical novel “Too Many Men”, there was every reason to be excited.  

Coming off the back of her Venice-premiering Antifa thriller Und morgen die ganze Welt (And Tomorrow The Entire World), von Heinz seemed like the ideal fit for Brett’s novel, a moving, insightful and often comic chronicle of how Ruth, an American businesswoman, brings her father Edek, an Auschwitz survivor, back to Poland to face the past to better confront the future. The 1999 book stands as a thoughtful excavation of history that deals with hereditary trauma and how the legacy of the Holocaust is experienced (or mis-experienced) throughout generations – something von Heinz explored in both Hanna’s Journey and And Tomorrow The Entire World.  

What a shame that her big screen treatment of Brett’s story waters everything down and singularly fails to capture what made the source material so hauntingly precise yet tragically universal. More than that, Treasure is so frustratingly aimless and at times off-putting it may dissuade those who haven’t read Brett’s book from seeking it out.

Any film that pulls off that particular feat can only be considered a failure. 

Treasure stars Stephen Fry and Lena Dunham as the father-daughter pair who embark on this life-changing road trip to Auschwitz in 1991. The Iron Curtain has fallen, which means that exiled Jews have the possibility to return and reconnect with their history, and the two’s bickering interactions capture the fact they’re both facing this homecoming from opposite sides of the spectrum. Edek masks his trauma with affable bonhomie, while Ruth bulldozes towards her desire to find a renewed sense of purpose following a recent divorce and the death of her mother.  

Beyond that established back-and-forth between the mismatched characters, Fry’s laudable commitment to learning Polish for the role, and the fact it’s impossible to keep dry-eyed when the actor gets emotional, there really isn’t much about Treasure that rings true. There are many reasons for this – the clichéd dialogue for starters – but one major roadblock throughout is the character of Ruth. 

Granted, she does not have to be a likeable character, but even when focusing on parts of Ruth’s anxieties, Dunham and the script never manage to make her complex or gradually sympathetic. Just really annoying.  

She is the archetype of the tone-deaf and obnoxious American, shouting at Polish people “I don’t speak English” when she’s not greeting them curtly with a “me llamo Ruth”. Considering the character has been career-switched from a businesswoman to a journalist, one might have dared to assume she could have done a minimum amount of research or learned a few stock phrases to get by. And when she scolds people for calling Auschwitz a museum (“It’s not a museum - it’s a death camp!”), it’s hard to give her the benefit of the doubt by admitting that her heart might be in the right place. You just want to shout at her for insensitively appropriating trauma and chastise her for failing to understand that people for whom English is not their native language may not have the adequate term to express what Auschwitz is. 

None of this is fully Dunham’s fault, as the script focuses far too much on her character and her stereotyped neuroses, painting her out to be incurably self-involved and incapable of growth. From her first mistake of insensitively booking train tickets, to teary-eyed reproaches towards the end of the film, Ruth can’t fathom that she may not be the only one dealing with PTSD. Even if that could be the point, as Brett’s book succeeds in bringing an unapologetic main character to our attention, the script never comments on this or on how people are a complex and uniquely wonderful bundle of contradictions. Nor does it meaningfully delve into a generational divide that is characterised by incompatible experiences of the world, wherein the act of surviving can translate to a desire to bury the past. All the film manages to do is make Ruth even more unempathetic, to the point you’ll be hard-pressed to find another character quite as insufferable this year.  

The less said about the portrayal of the Polish people reduced to thieves who can be bribed in any given situation, the better. 

Earnest to a fault, Treasure is a journey of remembrance that ends up as a mawkish misfire, one which undervalues a novel that deserved so much more.

Treasure is out now.

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