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Poles Apart

April 16, 2009 By:
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Anna Paquin leads her wards to safety in the role of Irena Sendler, who fell in love with a Jewish university student (below, Goran Visnjic).

Sendler's list?

It was a massive mission on which Holocaust heroine Irena Sendler sent herself; the Polish Catholic social worker provided salve for the social insecurity inflicted on so many Jews during the war as they witnessed neighbors disappearing one Star of David at a time during dimming prospects of daily survival.

Through subterfuge and substantial cunning, Sendler's saintly salvation of more than 2,500 Jewish children provided a Holocaust hierography from which a compelling new telemovie has drawn inspiration, as well as the involvement of an Oscar-winning actress of considerable heart and soul.

"The Courageous Heart of Irena Sendler," a Hallmark Hall of Fame film airing on Sunday, April 19, from 9 p.m. to 11 p.m., on CBS3, is all about the blood-soaked red badge of courage conjured up by Sendler, whose deception was also a death sentence in abeyance. Just one more small misstep and her already brutally bloodied and beaten feet at Nazis' hands would have been toeing the line at death's door.

But destiny detained the determined hero from her ultimate fate for decades; on the day she was scheduled to be executed, Sendler herself was saved by Zegota, the underground network with which she was linked to carry children away from the death camps on to gentile families that would hide them.

It is in the shadow of this year's Yom Hashoah that the CBS network has showed its hand and heart, scheduling a factual fulmination against a time so horrid that it seemed a facsimile image of the devil himself.

God is in the details of Sendler's story, based on the biography Mother of the Children of the Holocaust, and the film version has received a godsend itself in the form of actress Anna Paquin, packed with talent and compassion in her most contemplative role to date.

And that says a lot: Don't shoot "The Piano" player; honor her instead, which is what the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences did, with an Oscar going to Anna, the second youngest actor to receive the golden statuette when she was accorded it in 1993 at age 11.

A sweet 16 years later, the Canadian-born, New Zealand-raised Columbia University-educated actress has a zeal for her role that shows up on screen as the tough-but-tender Sendler.

"Well, I'm pretty tough myself," says the actress with a loving laugh that belies the shy image forever imprinted in memory of the small girl who accepted her big award so many years ago with tears and a tyke's innocent breathlessness that was genuinely breathtaking.

Now she breathes life into the late legend that was Sendler, a 1997 Nobel Peace Prize nominee who passed away just last year at the age of 98 even as her own story remains ageless.

And timeless: A 1940s time capsule of a hero for the new millennium?

"I don't see any compelling reason not to consider her so," relates Paquin in a clipped accent with more than a bite of Kiwi. "And what was amazing in researching her story for me was discovering that here was a woman who did so much, and yet there was no great ego about it at all."

And go against the odds she did; clandestinely carting off kids alive encased in deceptive makeshift coffins, shipped off to awaiting families who would provide them breathing room and a life as the Reich raged on.

While she breathed hope into their lives, Irena's name has not been on the lips of many historians.

"I had never heard about her," concedes Paquin of her pre-portrayal familiarity with the story. "And how many would have found out about her were it not for some girls in high school doing a research project?"

Ah, the story within the story. What becomes a legend most?

Giving life to the past where it once was deemed moribund. Ten years ago, at the behest of their teacher on National History Day, a triumphant trio of ninth-graders and a 12th-grader in Kansas canvassed their hearts for a hallowed story and found one with a halo effect: Reading a short news article about Irena Sendler handed them by their teacher -- who previously had not heard of her either -- they embarked on an ambitious program.

That project, enjoined by other students, resulted in the written drama, "Life in a Jar," which has jarred audiences worldwide where it has been performed to acclaim and effect.

If "Jar" was germane for young theatrical audiences, "Courageous Heart" should count millions of catholic viewers among the affected. And for actress Paquin, who first showed her true stripes of talent playing a skunk in ballet class at age 6 -- five years before she would own the Oscar -- Sendler sends messages Paquin particularly enjoys making -- at once mystical and myth-shattering.

In a way Paquin enjoys her rogue roles, including that of Rogue in the "X-Men" film series and that of a Jewish teen teeming with despair over her parents' marital blitz in "A Walk on the Moon." She pretty much walked off with audiences' emotions and hearts in that 1999 upstart role set at an upstate New York Jewish resort.

Paquin is no pack rat of troubles; where other young women have woes recounted on "Entertainment Tonight" nightly, as well as "Extra," what is so extraordinary about the multiple instrumentalist -- and, yes, she does play piano -- is her ... normalcy. "Well, I was shy, quiet, as a teenager."

But the silent minor has turned into a major not-so-quiet riot of a kid all grown up: "I haven't shut up since!" she laughs.

She has shot up in ratings and varied lists -- named to the "Hot 100 of 2008" gathered up by Maxim mag -- but the list she is most concerned with now is the one once counted on and by Irena Sendler. The shift from Schindler to Sendler lists just about right, she says. "Unfortunately," contends the actress, "you hear more about the male stories" of Holocaust heroism.

Until now: Another Irena -- this one Irena Gut -- is making her history known on Broadway in "Irena's Vow" in the capable hands of Tovah Feldshuh, ironically Paquin's "Moon" co-star.

Coincidence? Harmonic convergence of Polish Catholic Holocaust heroines?

"From my readings," says Paquin wryly, "it seems that half of Irena Sendler's co-workers were also named Irena. Must have been a popular name in Polish Catholic circles."

Paquin squares her vision of Jews' vicissitudes during the war with the research and oral histories she heard prior to urging Irena out of her heart on to the screen. "The most horrifying stories," she recounts of the countless tales of torture and despair she encountered.

Would she herself have survived the surrogate anti-Semitism suffered by Sendler when the Nazis accused her of conspiring to con them?

"I would love to think that I'd be fantastically brave but," she adds, "it's impossible to guess."

No guesswork in Paquin's portrayal here; she is the movie's lifeblood, without bleeding it of realistic compassion and commitment often common to such performances. (But then, Paquin knows from bloodlines; the Golden Globe winner portrays the vampish Sookie in HBO's vampire thriller "True Blood.")

Indeed, the young woman who within a period of 10 years went from portraying Jeff Daniels' daughter ("Fly Away Home") to flying into his arms as his lover in "The Squid and the Whale" (2005) is on solid ground in her beachhead career.

And as far as that beach is concerned, when told that the Auckland, New Zealand, site in which she dug a role for herself in "The Piano" is a popular tourist spot for film fans, she admits: "I am not surprised."

"But," she adds, if tour guides "were really clever," they would show off one special spot right by the surf.

And what is that? Bringing up a shushed-up memory and an adorable laugh an 11-year-old would own up to, the artful actress without an ounce of artifice says, "Because that's where I threw up on the sand!"  

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