Irena's Vow Review: Sophie Nelisse Proves She's A Star In This Beautiful Story Of Human Endurance [TIFF 2023]

In Eastern Poland in 1939, Irena Gut (Sophie Nélisse) works as a nurse. She's just found out that Poland has been invaded by Germany, and her whole life is about to change. Before she knows it, Irena is ushered away to a munitions factory where she does intensive labor all hours of the day. She's been separated from her mother and sisters and is told her only chance of survival is to assist the German war effort.

Impressed by her "German" heritage (Irena is not aware of any actual German background), Major Rugmer (Dougray Scott) reassigns Irena to a new placement, doing domestic housework. There, she works under Herr Schulz (Andrzej Seweryn), who tells her she's to supervise the work of 11 Jewish tailors — their work has been unsatisfactory, and it's suspected they've been lying about their abilities. Shulz gives Irena valuable advice on how to survive her miserable circumstances: "Look at your own two feet, taking one step at a time." The moment you start worrying about someone else besides yourself is when danger takes over.

Irena however, has no intention of doing that — you don't get into nursing to not take care of other people. Irena immediately establishes a rapport with the Jewish people, who feel a sense of camaraderie — Irena, just like them, has been forced into this circumstance. She learns the names of all 11 of the people she supervises and helps them with their work so they don't get punished. When Irena overhears a plan to exterminate every Jew in the town, she springs to action. She proposes an idea that might just be crazy: she's going to hide all 11 of them in the last place anyone would expect — the home of Major Rugmer. Directed by Louise Archambault ("Gabrielle") in her English-language debut, "Irena's Vow" is a timely portrait of resisting hatred, and how far you're willing to go to do the right thing.

A story of unfathomable courage

In her first major role since her big breakthrough in "Yellowjackets," Nélisse has matched her phenomenal work on that TV show with another brilliant turn here. It's clear the filmmakers have the utmost reverence for the real Irena, as the character is treated with great respect. You can feel the weight upon Irena's shoulders in Nélisse's performance — despite Irena's kindness, her body is always rigid, tense with anxiety. Being discovered hiding Jews means an all but certain grizzly death for Irena, and that tension carries through Nélisse's performance.

She's especially strong in a scene where she's forced to witness a public hanging of people found harboring Jews. She's beyond horrified, and tears stream down her face. She wants to scream, but she knows screaming brings attention, and questions — why would someone loyal to the German cause be upset by such an event? Nélisse trembles, trying to keep her emotions in check to avoid suspicion. It's unforgettable. "Yellowjackets" showed her capabilities as a supporting character, and while this isn't her first leading role (that would be 2013's "The Book Thief"), it's clear Nélisse is a tremendously capable lead actress.

Archambault's film smartly balances the humanity with the reality. In a breakthrough moment, the Jews in the cellar notice the villa's architecture points to having been built by a Jewish person — therefore, there must be a hidden room to hide in. It's a rare moment of optimism, as it gives the 11 people hiding an opportunity to feel more secure. But it's a detail shrouded in darkness, as knowing a Jewish-built home must have come with a hiding place speaks to how deeply entrenched antisemitism was in society even before the events of World War II. A single line of dialogue has the ability to provoke both excitement and heartache, and that's beautifully exemplified in "Irena's Vow."

A shining light in a dark world

"Irena's Vow" is an examination of survival, how we cope with the evil surrounding us, and how there are many different ways to survive — following the crowd, turning a blind eye, being a willing participant, and so on. But what exactly does it take to be the kind of person who is willing to take a stand against evil? For Irena, it takes courage, ingenuity, and immense inner strength to pull off a seemingly impossible task. The film is also keen to explore humanity beyond the numbers, allowing us time to get to know the people Irena helped in tumultuous times.

Films about such tragedy often poke and prod the viewer to cry, but "Irena's Vow" lets the sheer emotion of the situation unfold naturally. The score is effective but never overwhelming, and the film thankfully avoids emotional manipulation — that's not to say you won't well up watching, but the movie comes by those tears honestly. I was struck by a particular edit that took us from one holiday celebration to another. It was a subtle, beautiful expression of how important faith is to people, and despite immense persecution, people will not give up their values. And fair warning, the film's post-script is all but guaranteed to have you weeping as details on Irena's extraordinary life are revealed.

There are a lot of films about World War II, and particularly the persecution faced by the Jewish people. It can be a serious challenge to find a way to say something new from a well-trod moment in history, but thankfully "Irena's Vow" manages it by honing in on its characters, giving us a unique, human story at the root of unfathomable tragedy. This is a special, inspiring story that deserves to be seen. 

/Film Rating: 9 out of 10