For years I had a soft spot for the novel 'Veronika Decides To Die', perhaps because Coelho approached the subject material with verve, originality, sensitivity and the understanding that comes only from having lived through something similar.
When I heard of the movie, I was hoping it was going to be handled with the same deft of hand the author had used with the original incarnation of the work. I was worried that a movie of this novel would be haphazard, overtly-dramatic and, frankly, a botched effort. So when Sarah Michelle Gellar became attached to the project I was seriously relieved. Here's an actor who is so under-rated, Gellar has a considerable talent: the ability to transcend genres as an actor and succeed at it. Why she has remained so under-rated in her industry I honestly can't understand.
Her interpretation of Veronika Deklava in Veronika Decides To Die, I'm sure will be defined as being the role of Gellar's career thus far. Gellar makes this movie. Most actors have previously taken similar roles and gone for the overtly-melancholic, Hollywood-style "despair" and self-loathing, making it fraught with unreal overtly emotional behaviour that anyone who has suffered severe depression/mental-illness can tell you is usually not accurate. What Gellar does here is employ subtly, strength and honesty. Her interpretation of Veronika's despair smacks of someone who knows what she's dealing with, or at least has studied the realism of such suffering with consideration: in real life, severe depressives almost always strive to hide their despair from most of those around them. Veronika does this in the novel, and Sarah Michelle Gellar uses her talents to do it with her approach to her role in the film, and the result is an astonishing performance from her.
Gellar's Veronika is somehow far more real and affecting a character than anything thrown out in the last twenty years (e.g: Girl, Interrupted/One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest and to lesser degrees movies such as Thirteen, House of Sand & Fog, The Hours...). The movie is slow, but never does it bore, or seem sluggish. I sat rapt with attention, moved to tears and frequently wishing the movie were going at a slower pace due to the astonishing performance of Gellar & indeed the rest of the cast. If you look at the novel itself: this is about Veronika, and how she effects those around her, and this is what the movie focuses on and does so almost flawlessly.
A previous reviewer described Gellar's acting here as a tour-de-force performance, commanding the screen with a subtly, sensitive touch, fraught with mixed emotion, confusion & strength. The rest of the cast are equally on top form, Erika Christensen is sad yet charming, Jonathan Tucker and particularly Melissa Leo are great and highly memorable in their supporting roles.
Not for one second did I think Gellar's Veronika was "void of emotion", on the contrary it's a performance filled with clearly conflicting emotions, broiling beneath the surface, always just a moment away from bubbling to the fore yet nearly always controlled- it's clearly a thought out, hard-worked at performance and having been in Veronika's position, having felt those emotions myself, I can see it in Gellar's performance. Her acting skills get a full workout here, she excels herself and has, I think, raised the bar for other actors in portraying hopelessness, disillusion and mental illness on screen in a way that perhaps only Bjork did in a similar way with her quietly charming but clearly sad, disillusioned yet hopeful portrayal of Selma in Dancer in the Dark.
Alright things are missing in the movie that may have helped, but what they did here was concentrate on the core idea: Veronika. They took it in the right direction and truly, this film shines because of it. The outstanding, subtly & strength of (all) the acting, the beautiful cinematography, the perfectly suited soundtrack and a refreshingly intelligent, honed script have made Veronika Decides To Die not only one of my personal favourite films, but also undoubtedly one of the best movies I have seen in several years. See it, if not for your love of the novel, but for the performances, you will be rewarded.
It has no doubt set the bar for future movies dealing with similar subject material, it shows you can make films about depression and suicide without the irritating emotional circuses previously done in the industry. Coelho, no doubt is very proud- and I'm sure relieved! Sadly I think though it is certainly Oscar worthy stuff on display, I'm not sure due to its rather scattered release, the fact it is independent and unlikely to get as broad a release and publicity as is needed for Oscar contenders generally, it would be tragic if all the bloody great acting on show here does not get its deserved recognition. If I had not already been a major fan of Sarah Michelle Gellar's work before, I certainly would have been after this.