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Heroes of the underground

POLISH director Agnieska Holland's first film for six years since Copying Beethoven, during which period she added to an already impressive CV by directing episodes of The Wire and The Killing, returns to the subject of the impact of the Second World War on her native country.

In 1990, the superb Europa Europa told a remarkable true tale of survival, a teenage Jewish boy who passed himself off as a pure Aryan and was even honoured by the Nazis, and while the tone here is much, much darker the story is no less gripping.

Set in the city of Lvov in the early 1940s, In Darkness centres around sewer worker and petty criminal Leopold Socha (Robert Wieckiewicz), a Catholic Pole who's happy to make extra money on the side by trading on the black market with the Jews in the city's ghetto, chiefly the resourceful Mundek, played by Benno Furmann.

When the Nazis and their Ukrainian collaborators liquidate the ghetto, Socha helps Mundek and a group of survivors to hide in the sewers for a regular and exorbitant fee and it's from here that most of the film takes place.

The dank, dark drains of a wartime Polish city may not sound like the ideal setting for a 145-minute film, but Holland marshalls her material with a masterful skill.

The terrified people huddled below ground in horrendous conditions may all face certain death due to their religion, but they're anything but a united group. Divisions soon emerge due to class and ethnicity, while domestic disputes and jealousies add to the desperate situation.

On the surface, too, Socha knows that his sheltering of the fugitives will guarantee execution if discovered and he has to tread warily when dealing with shopkeepers, his colleagues, a former cellmate who's now a militia commander and his wife Wanda (Kinga Preis).

At well over two hours, In Darkness is undoubtedly hard going and, like many stories of Holocaust survival, the dramatic arc will be familiar to audiences who've seen The Counterfeiters, The Pianist and, of course, Schindler's List. That minor caveat aside though, Agnieska Holland has created a moving and gripping tale, part of an overall story which should never be forgotten. HHHHI

WE BOUGHT A ZOO Drama. Starring Matt Damon, Scarlett Johansson, Thomas Haden Church. Directed by Cameron Crowe. Cert PG

The promise of Cameron Crowe's first four films, Say Anything, Singles, Jerry Maguire and Almost Famous, now seem but a distant memory as his career went off a cliff with Vanilla Sky and the awful, mawkish Elizabethtown. This dreadful exercise in schmaltz provides the final puff of dust from the bottom of the valley floor below.

Based on the true story of how widower Benjamin Mee (Matt Damon) bought a wildlife park in Dartmoor and moved there with his two children, this drips with sugary sentimentality and underscores every impending emotion with a heavy-handedness you'd expect from a rank amateur rather than a once-subtle director.

With the setting relocated to sunny California, Damon's decent dad -- who comes saddled with a brooding teenage son (Colin Ford) and cute young daughter (Maggie Elizabeth Jones) -- meets a sexy zookeeper (Scarlett Johansson) and there's even a perky Elle Fanning to cheer up the son.

Will they get the zoo open in time? Will Benjamin come to terms with his wife's death? Will Sigur Ros be on the soundtrack come the finale? Have a guess. HHIII

ONCE UPON A TIME IN ANATOLIA Drama. Muhammet Uzuner, Taner Birsel. Directed by Nuri Bilge Ceylan. Cert 15A

A glacially paced police procedural set in rural Turkey, Nuri Bilge Ceylan's meandering 150-minute tale contains moments of sublime beauty as a prosecutor and doctor join policemen in attempting to find the body of a murder victim. For the first 45 minutes or so the film is undeniably intriguing but, really, there are only so many passages of meandering conversation and longing gazes into the middle distance one can take before you wish the director had been sent back to the editing suite with a good clip around the ear. HHIII

THE OTHER SIDE OF SLEEP Drama. Starring Antonia Campbell-Hughes, Sam Keeley, Olwen Foure, Cathy Belton. Directed by Rebecca Daly. Cert 15A

The grim surroundings of Offaly provide the backdrop for Rebecca Daly's vague, barely scripted and exceedingly pretentious story of a female factory worker and somnambulist (Antonia Campbell-Hughes) who wakes up in a forest beside a murder victim (or does she?) and develops a fascination with the details of the killing.

The film suffers a typically Irish fate of being under-written and this, ultimately, leaves the viewer frustrated and not a little irritated. HHIII