One of the few seemingly spontaneous bursts of energy at the recent Academy Awards ceremony was provided by motor mouth Dutch director Mike van Diem, who seemed genuinely surprised that his debut feature Character had won an Oscar for Best Foreign Film.
If the commercial popularity and Oscar sweep for Titanic reveal a desire to return to traditional, old-fashioned storytelling, Character's award should constitute further proof. Except for a very few daring moments, Character -- adapted from Ferdinand Bordewijk's 1938 Dutch novel of the same name -- is, both in technique and in subject matter, solidly retro. The story is set in Holland in the early '20s: A young man named Jakob Katadreuffe (Fedja van Huet) is arrested for the murder of a surly, heartless public official named Dreverhaven (Jan Decleir). As the police interrogate Jakob, he denies the crime while revealing -- in a flashback that occupies most of the film -- that he is in fact Dreverhaven's illegitimate son.
It seems that some 25 years earlier Jakob's mother Joba (Betty Schuurman) was Dreverhaven's maid. One night, in a moment of passion uncharacteristic for either of them, she becomes pregnant with her boss' child. She informs Dreverhaven, but without further explanation moves out and refuses his persistent proposals of marriage, choosing instead to raise Jakob alone.
As miserable as life with Dreverhaven might have proven for the boy, living alone with Joba isn't exactly a walk in the park, either. Dour and distant, she is so uncommunicative that it's surprising that Jakob even learns to speak. But being a clever lad, he survives both his upbringing and the taunts of the neighborhood kids. Relentlessly ambitious, he even teaches himself English out of some abandoned books, eventually parlaying his bilingual talents into an entry-level job at a law firm. Under the benevolent guidance of his boss De Gankelaar (Victor Low, an actor with a chin so pronounced he makes Jay Leno look like Andy Gump), Jakob studies for the bar. Driven to succeed, he forgoes emotional entanglements of all kinds. But he soon discovers that the resentful Dreverhaven, who still wants to marry Joba, has been maneuvering behind the scenes to make his life miserable. His hatred for his father only fuels his ambition further.
It's an intriguingly melodramatic story, with a dark visual style that matches its tone. On one or two occasions van Diem indulges in some oddball narrative touches. The most interesting has the narrator of a flashback suddenly revealed to be speaking his narration from within the flashback -- shades of Alain Resnais' Last Year at Marienbad.
Within its modest ambitions, Character is a memorable, sometimes even stunning debut. But it has some problems -- at least for American audiences -- that are not really van Diem's fault. For instance van Huet is a dead ringer for Robert Downey, Jr., which is occasionally distracting. (The similarity is so undeniable that even van Diem himself mentions it in the film's press notes.) Far more distracting is the evil Dreverhaven's unfortunate resemblance to Terry Jones as the upchucking Mr. Creosote in Monty Python's The Meaning of Life (1983).
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Nor is the subtitling particularly adept. One scene has what is probably the worst moment of translation this side of Hong Kong: When Jakob and a bunch of kids are questioned by the cops about a petty theft, the kids, presumably trying to remain anonymous, all claim the rather generic surname "Johnson." Since Americans are presumably thought to be too dumb to get the joke, the subtitles translate "Johnson" as "Smith" -- thus pulling us out of the story's reality and guaranteeing giggles.
While oversimplifying in that case, the subtitles undersimplify in another: Dreverhaven is, without further explanation, identified as a "bailiff" -- apparently meaning something like "chief of police" but certainly not jibing with the American sense of the word.
Melodrama fans who are prepared to overlook these missteps in the movie's presentation should find themselves utterly satisfied by van Diem's tale. It's not especially groundbreaking, but it provides an absorbing two hours.
Directed by Mike van Diem. Written by van Diem, in cooperation with Laurens Geels and Ruud van Megen, based on the novel by Ferdinand Bordewijk. Starring Fedja van Huet, Betty Schuurman, Jan Decleir, and Victor Low.