Canadian poet Anne Michaels’s beautiful 1996 novel—about a Jewish writer immobilized by the memory of his Polish family’s murder at the hands of the Nazis—distills tragedy into grief, terror, and a wary romance set on a picturesque Greek island. So far, so cinematic. But Fugitive Pieces is also a cerebral excavation into history, written in lush cadences meant to be read or recited. It may be unfilmable, and in pursuit of sensitivity, Canadian writer-director Jeremy Podeswa hollows out the novel’s urgency in favor of a vaguely spiritual morbidity. As Jakob Beer, a writer so traumatized by his own history and that of six million others that he can barely function, Stephen Dillane (a fine actor, if barely plausible as a Jew) mopes around in mid-century hair, looking generically pained in between flashbacks to Jakob’s youth in Greece and Toronto, where he lived after being rescued by a Greek geologist (Rade Serbedzija) nursing his own losses. Stolidly matching lighting with mood and place—here’s Poland in distressed blue and gray, Canada in rain-washed slate, Greece basted in gold or lashed by temperamental Mediterranean storms—the movie dithers along, tiptoeing tastefully in and out of flashback and explanatory voiceover, until a voluptuous scholar (Ayelet Zurer) shows up, bearing redemption. But whereas Michaels subverted her novel’s rosy ending, Podeswa leaves us with a glossy future plucked from a Harlequin assembly line.