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Irena’s Vow Review: Grounded & gripping drama

A closeup of Sophie Nélisse in the 2024 film Irena’s Vow

Sophie Nélisse shines in Irena’s Vow, a moving film adaptation of the Broadway play based on the true story of Irena Gut Opdyke.

When I decided to watch Irena’s Vow because the film featured Sophie Nélisse (Yellowjackets) in the title role, I had no idea how much it would impact me. This is such a personal story taking place during the Holocaust and one that could be mishandled. Thankfully, director Louise Archambault and writer Dan Gordon obviously had their hearts in the right place. This pairing puts the focus on its subject in Irene Gut Opdyke, who audiences may or may not be aware of, and they, along with an excellent cast and crew, make a film that will bring you to tears while also unearthing a feeling of hope.

Irena’s Vow is adapted from the Broadway play of the same name written by Dan Gordon. It centers on Polish nurse Irena Gut (Sophie Nélisse) who finds herself employed as a housekeeper by Nazi officer Eduard Rügemer (Dougray Scott, of Mission: Impossible 2). Irena risks everything by sheltering and protecting Jewish people inside of Rügemer’s home amid The Holocaust.

Even if I may be biased, I can confidently say that plenty will agree that Sophie Nélisse is brilliant as Irena Gut. Her accent is unlike anything I have seen from her; she effectively makes you believe she is Irena and does not have any noticeable slips. Nélisse will leave you in tears with her poignant performance. The way she uses her big, expressive eyes to convey Irena’s emotions is very impressive. This is particularly noticeable in the scenes where Nélisse has little to no dialogue: she uses her eyes and face to make the audience understand exactly what the character is feeling in that moment. Irena is given agency and humanity by the script and the actress portraying her, which makes everything she experiences have that much more of an impact on viewers.

Dougray Scott’s performance as Rügemer is also something worth highlighting. He makes a character that is detestable in a lot of ways interesting without letting him get off the hook for the crime of being a Nazi. There is a humanity to him, buried deep inside under the brainwashing that Adolf Hitler managed to install into the German people. Scott’s ability to showcase both sides makes this an effective portrayal. You are not fully able to forget his actions during and before the events of Irena’s Vow, but he turns out to have more to him by the end than you would expect.

Sophie Nélisse and a group of people lean against a wall trying to hide in the 2024 film Irena’s Vow
Irena’s Vow (Quiver Distribution & Fathom Events)

The narrative is obviously focused on Irena, but we see tragedy and triumph through her eyes and actions. Gordon lets audiences know who Irena is as a person and we also see some of the horrors of the Holocaust through Irena’s eyes before she makes the decision that will change her life. We are also given the chance to spend time with some of the people that she chooses to save. Because of these factors, her decision feels rooted in logic and reality, rather than being something Irena does because the script tells her to.

We are also given the chance during Irena’s Vow to see a contrast in how the Nazis and Jewish people lived during this time. Much like 2023’s The Zone of Interest, it is very chilling to watch and will stick with you after the credits begin to roll. Since you have connected with the individuals like Ida (Eliza Rycembel) who Irena tries to save by hiding them in Rügemer’s home, it makes things even more sickening. These are human beings that should never have been subjected to something like this; Dan Gordon and Louise Archambault never let you forget that.

Archambault, from the director’s chair, shot Irena’s Vow in a way that feels grounded. We see the world through Irena’s eyes and thus everything is shot with a more natural look. This film is not a booming war drama; it cares more about the humans involved and how they are impacted rather than showing you tons of shooting or explosions. Everything they show you directly matters to the characters that you have grown to care for and feels very real when you are watching.

The costumes look very of the time and worn. Too often, when films depict true stories, they have their actors wear clothing that appears to be too new. That is not the case here, as these outfits are part of what allows the viewer to firmly believe they are watching something that takes place in the 1940s. You do not have extravagant costumes because there is no need for them and in all honesty, I would compare these to theater costumes, which is fitting when you consider the film is based on a play.

Irena’s story is so important, even if you might not be aware of it before watching. This is a tale of how one person can stand up and make a difference even if it seems like a lost cause to others. Every member of the cast and crew appears to understand that, and it is shown on screen during Irena’s Vow. If you did not have a proper level of commitment from them, this inspirational narrative would falter and thus not do the real life figures any sort of justice. 

Irena’s Vow: Trailer (Quiver Distribution)

It is well written and winds up being a tight two hours in terms of structure, but if the cast was not all in, you would have a standard true story without any sort of impact on an emotional level. The actions of the Nazis that are depicted and the subsequent quality reactions these actors give to them allow audiences to form an authentic connection to what/who they are seeing.

Irena’s Vow will tug at your heart and make you feel hopeful. Sophie Nélisse brings Irena Gut to life in a way that honors not only her, but everything that she meant. Audiences should find this to be an impassioned film with fantastic direction and acting. Most importantly, it treats a sensitive subject like the Holocaust with the grace it deserves. 

Irena’s Vow will have an exclusive nationwide cinema premiere across the US on April 15-16, 2024, from Quiver Distribution and Fathom Events.

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