In Darkness, an excessively serious-minded Holocaust drama directed by the unimpeachably sober prestige film specialist Agnieszka Holland, is such a tailor-made winner of the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar that even now that it's all done, I still can't believe that it lost. Especially since it actually turns out to be quite good, despite a nearly parodic fixation on being the most securely middlebrow art film possible. It's extremely difficult to argue with a straight face that we need any more movies about the Holocaust; everything that genuinely needed to be said on the subject was largely covered in the documentaries Night and Fog and Shoah, and since then, the most unutterably evil moment of modern history has been largely used as a prop to give awards-baiting movies a healthy dose of gravitas, be they as restrained and sturdily well-intentioned as Schindler's List or fucking ghastly as The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas. Taking that as given, In Darkness manages to sit comfortably on the positive side of the genre; it does not in the end, tell us very much about the Holocaust that we did not already know, other than exploring a true story that I, for one, had absolutely no knowledge of. That, I suppose, is already worth at least something.

In Lvov, Poland, in 1943 and 1944, a Gentile sewer worker named Leopold Socha (played here by Robert Wieckiewicz) accepted a considerable sum of money from a small group of Jews to help them escape the city, and the Nazis then overrunning it, by means of sneaking through the sewer system, which Socha knew as well as anyone living. By the agreed-upon time of the escape, "a small group of Jews" had turned into a veritable subterranean shtetl, far too big for Socha to safely evacuate them all. So he, in a fit of anger, reported the whole lot of them to the Gestapo, winning the princely sum of 500 marks for each victim.

Of course not! Who the hell would make a movie about that?* No, Socha at first protected the refugees at the cost of all the cash they have, then all the jewelry they have, and then, when they had nothing, and when he could indeed turn them in for quite a nice bounty per-head, he instead... ddin't. At some point in all the food smuggling and accepting bribes and playing spy, Socha had become a decent person, and he continued to shelter and hide and feet "his" Jews for a grand total of 18 months, until the Soviets liberated Lvov from the Nazis early in 1945.

That is, of course, a helluva story, and for the filmmaker aiming to tell a broadly appealing tale of survival during that time, it even has a fairly obvious cinematic ancestry: Schindler's List (Gentile protects Jews first because they are worth money, then because he has grown to know and love them) crossed with The Pianist (Jews hiding from the Nazis in an occupied Polish city by whatever means necessary, no matter how degrading), two of the best-known and, in the U.S. at least, best-regarded films ever made about the Holocaust. That In Darkness ends up feeling mostly like its own movie - that it was made for legitimate reasons, in essence, and not because Holocaust pictures are Serious and Therefore Arty - is mostly due to Holland's firm direction, and some of the better performances; not so much because of first-time screenwriter David F. Shamoon's dramatisation of Robert Marshall's 1990 book In the Sewers of Lvov. It's not Shamoon's fault, of course, that a true story hewed so close to dramatic tropes; his luck, but not his fault. Still, he doesn't do all that much to fight against the rather paint-by-numbers scope of the whole 144-minute feature, however much the individual moments frequently snap with vitality and individuality. Unlike most of its stablemates, the script of In Darkness does a generally good job of giving the various Jews hiding in the sewers depth of personality and considerable human feeling - no cardboard sufferers, but hopeful, scared, petty, adulterous, romantic people these are, trapped in the damp, reeking hell beneath the city. And for this, we can be grateful. Unfortunately, despite the sharpness of its close observation, the further we pull back from In Darkness the more indistinct it becomes, until by the time the final scene and accompanying "what happened later" intertitles show up, there doesn't seem to be much substance to the film at all beyond a foggy plot about a venal man rising to be his best self and protecting people that, months or even weeks earlier, he barely gave a thought to; and this plot was already done to better effect in Schindler's List, thanks to a career-best Liam Neeson performance.

But I was saying: somewhat undernourished script, but purposeful, strong direction. Holland's approach to this material is inflexibly simple, which turns out to be extremely good: the temptation to sentimentalise the Holocaust is typically nauseating. Holland has none of that; she documents with the most uninflected eye she can manage, and the visual language of the film breaks down into three extremely concise families: scenes inside the Socha home, which are musty and brown; scenes on the streets of Lvov, which are harshly over-lit; and shots inside the sewers, which are murky, but no so murky you can't see; in fact, the extra-harsh exteriors are blown out, I suspect, precisely to make the hardest contrast possible with the sewer scenes, while leaving the sewer scenes visually legible.

It's the underground leg of the film that is by far the most effective: stressing the closeness of the sewers, and the wetness of the sewers, and the confusing, maze-like course of the sewers (though not, and I think this is a mistake, the filthiness of the sewers), Holland creates a remarkably potent vision of hell below the pavement, underlining how ghastly the experience of these people must have been not only by detailing the misery of their lives, but by never quite allowing us to forget that the alternative is even worse, to have driven these people to such extremes (a single scene detailing the inside of the local concentration camp - one of the film's most unnecessary narrative stumbles - doesn't do much to reiterate this feeling; Holland is lucky to be able to count on the audience's pre-existing familiarity with those places to do most of her work). It is as nastily visceral as a Holocaust film can get without drifting over into violent exploitation, and far and away the best reason for In Darkness to exist.

Anchoring the film, Wieckiewicz's performance of Socha is pretty fine work: he essentially punts on the script's refusal to address the man's transition from scavenger hero in anything but broad, thuddingly over-dramatic terms (seeing a dead friend killed by the Nazis just because they're bastards is not enough, but it's the best Shamoon gives us) by letting us in on Socha's nascent kindness and sympathy before the writing has even thought about suggesing that it's there. Even better is Benno Fรผrmann's work as Mundek, the functional leader of the Jews hiding in the sewers, a granite performance that does not ever crack apart as such; but the actor obligingly shows us every face of his character's stern, practically inhuman remove from his circumstances, and while it is not, by virtue of the writing, a tremendously rangey performance, it's remarkably subtle. They're the two best members of a cast that has no weak links, and no other tremendous stand-outs; but a high level of baseline competence and rigor is pretty much par for the course here. The film is magnificently solid and steady: without charting new ground relative to its well-worn subject, it still travels familiar emotional territory with particular class and intelligence, and if it's no masterpiece, it's still a lovely example of that endangered beast, the Good Movie for Smart Audiences.