Some stories sound too good to be true. The idea that a gang of intellectuals staged a bank heist in Communist Romania by pretending to be a film crew and who were then were forced to recreate their actions is one such tale. The idea of making a dramatic film based on such dynamite source material, with such a high quality cast, is an enticing proposition. However, though Closer to the Moon is a fairly amiable watch, it never quite reaches the heights its subject matter suggests.
In Soviet era Romania, young waiter Virgil (Harry Lloyd) witnesses a movie crew filming a bank robbery in the square outside his workplace. It inspires him to quit his job and find work with eccentric director ‘Maestro’ Flavio (Allan Corduner). They are ordered by Comrade Holban (Anton Lesser) to make a film about the staged film shoot, and real life bank robbery, that Virgil saw, documenting the events that led to Max Rosenthal (Mark Strong) and his accomplices, including Alice (Vera Farmiga) devising and executing the heist.
It is to Nae Caranfil’s credit that the film isn’t merely a worthy, awards-bothering period piece. Instead for the most part it is a fairly enjoyable romp, one that at the same time manages to shine a light on the ousting from power of the Jewish revolutionaries who helped to defeat the Nazis. It also successfully mines great humour out of the absurdity of recreating the gang’s heist, and of the authorities’ handling of the film shoot.
It helps that Caranfil has such an excellent ensemble of actors. In a rare opportunity to play comedic leading roles, both Strong and Farmiga are as good as ever. They and their fellow gang members, Christian McKay, Joe Armstrong and Tim Plester, all display an easy chemistry and camaraderie, and the film is it at its best in their scenes together. Lesser is also very good value as the exasperated Holban, allowing the character actor a rare chance to shine, while David de Keyser is very funny as Virgil’s landlord. However though Lloyd brings a winning naivety to Virgil himself, it’s hard not to think the film would’ve been better if it’d focused solely on Strong et al.
As engaging as the actors are, Closer to the Moon overextends itself somewhat with its mixing of genres and tones. It is part drama, part satire, part romance and part whimsical comedy, and these parts don’t always fit together well. Some of the humour is too broad (particularly anything involving how sozzled Flavio is) and the music becoming extra wacky in order to underline the desire for chuckles. The amount of swearing in the film is also jarring, as in the main it is otherwise a pretty ‘PG’ affair. And when the film shifts gears towards the end and becomes far more serious, it stalls slightly as it hasn’t devoted enough time to the gang. As a result, their defiance in the face of tyranny doesn’t have the impact it should.
The disjointed nature of the film isn’t aided by its chapter based structure. The story flits around between points of view and periods in time, which only serves to keep the real reason why Rosenthal’s crew committed the robbery a mystery. In doing so, it simply means that we don’t know what drives the main characters. The structural confusion also ensures that it is not entirely clear whose story this is: Max’s, Alice’s or Virgil’s?
All in all, Closer to the Moon is much like the space missions discussed within its story: superficially impressive and engaging but actually less remarkable or relevant as perhaps it should.
Closer to the Moon premieres as the opening night gala screening of the UK Jewish Film Festival on Saturday 7th November before a 13th November UK cinema release.