'Accused' ('Lucia de B.'): Palm Springs Review

NFF/HFM
A tense if dramatically lopsided drama with a fine performance at its center 

A Dutch miscarriage of justice is given the feature treatment by Paula van der Oest ("Zus & Zo") in this foreign-language Oscar submission from the Netherlands

A Dutch nurse with a clear-cut professional conscience but no social skills to match is suspected of and then sentenced for the killing of several patients that died on her watch in Accused (Lucia de B.), a forceful drama that’s inspired by one of the biggest miscarriages of justice in recent Dutch history. Starring a convincing Ariane Schluter in the Dutch title role -- in the Netherlands, surnames of suspects are partially redacted to protect their identity -- and directed with workmanlike efficiency by Paula van der Oest, whose 2002 film Zus & Zo was nominated for an Oscar, this tense if dramatically somewhat lopsided drama has been submitted for foreign-language Oscar consideration by the Netherlands this year. It opened locally back in April and made just over $1.1 million, a decent if not spectacular haul, and will debut on U.S. soil in the Awards Buzz section of the upcoming Palm Springs International Film Festival.

Lucia (Schluter) is a harried nurse who often works nights and who has a gift for calming screaming babies, though her almost exclusive focus on her patients, which also include several terminally ill adults, means that her co-workers like to gossip about their admittedly anti-social colleague behind her back. The film opens with Lucia handcuffed in a police van and then tracks back to September 2001, when her diligent work as a caretaker coincides with the start of the career of a junior state prosecutor, Judith (Sallie Harmsen), who’s ominously told by her boss (a superb Annet Malherbe, from 2013 Cannes title Borgman) that she’s a little over eager but that "one day, there’s bound to be a case where you’ll be able to show us what you got". 

That case -- or, as it turns out to be, non-case -- is Lucia, who is forced by the hospital director (Barry Atsma) to take some time off after several babies she also looked after have died under inexplicable circumstances and Lucia starts to wonder out loud if she "attracts death." Guido van Gennep’s cinematography reinforces the subtle unease of these early scenes by filming everything with a camera that always moves ever so slightly, as if disaster or death could indeed be just around the corner. When a newborn finally does die, the camerawork tips over into a shaky handheld turmoil, suggesting not only that a human life is on the line but also visually foreshadowing the point of no return and rocky future that lie ahead for the night-shift nurse.

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Things quickly go downhill when Judith hears about the case and combines this information with the chatter of Lucia’s unsympathetic colleagues -- who accuse her of having been a "street hooker" before becoming a nurse. A phone tap reveals that Lucia also looks after her terminally ill grandfather, to whom she administers pain-alleviating drugs, which the prosecutor, not hindered by years of medical studies or experience, deduces (via the Internet) are possibly fatal as well. Several yellow-hued flashbacks further fill in the caretaker’s complex backstory, that includes abusive parents and an ugly brush with child prostitution, and though they provide possible explanations for her anti-social behavior, they are among the least successful elements devised by van der Oest and screenwriters Moniek Kramer and Tijs van Marle, who here seem to tread into Lifetime territory and too many instances of Psychology 101.

Much more interesting (and simultaneously bone-chilling) is the film’s clinical look at how Judith manages to build a case against Lucia, using the fact she likes crime novels against her and inferring that the "compulsions" she mentions in her diary are an "urge to kill" rather than an urge to read Tarot cards, as the nurse herself admits. The fact that hospitals are environments where sick people sometimes die is also used against her, with Judith suggesting all deaths that ever occurred on Lucia’s watch must have been caused by her since she's a suspect. About halfway through the film, Lucia is sentenced to prison for life on what turns out to be all conjecture and no real proof.

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The remainder of the film follows Lucia in prison while a devoted lawyer (Fedja van Huet) tries to build a case for her 2004 appeal hearing. Help comes from an unexpected source: Judith has started to have second thoughts about her overly zealous work and is secretly running her own counter-investigation. This fascinating turn of events could have been fleshed out more, both psychologically and in terms of storytelling (the similarities between the all-work-no-play approaches of both Judith and Lucia are never properly highlighted and there's too little sense of Judith as a person). The parallels between Lucia’s treatment by the authorities and medieval witch-hunts are, on the other hand, a little blunt and repeated too often.  

Like French filmmaker Vincent Garenq’s Guilty, in which a man was imprisoned for years on false charges of pedophilia, it is the prosecutors and judges’ desire to protect defenseless people from harm that makes them overlook the possibility that the people before them may be innocent. And also like that based-on-true-events feature, it is the harrowing real-life story that’s the real star of the film. To that purpose, Schluter, one of the country’s most famous theater actresses, completely disappears into the very complex and meaty role of an entirely unsympathetic but innocent woman whose clear innocence and terrible fate rather than her own behavior finally warm her to the audience. Indeed, van Oest’s commitment to something akin to realism rather than facile emotional high- and lowlights throughout is commendable, especially since the lack of immediately identifiable emotions was another reason a lot of people suspected Lucia of possibly being a killer. Harmsen’s role is not well developed enough to make her character’s sudden change of heart credible and all the other roles are essentially bit parts.  

Production companies: Rinkel Film, Filmkreatorerna, Living Stone, Lucil Films, NCRV

Cast: Ariane Schluter,
Sallie Harmsen,
Fedja Van Huet,
Barry Atsma,
Annet Malherbe, Maartje Remmers, Lineke Rijxman, Kaltoum Boufangacha, Ad Knippels, Isis Cabolet,
Bas Keijzer, Amanda Ooms, Marwan Kenzari, Marcel Musters

Director: Paula van der Oest

Screenplay: Moniek Kramer, Tijs van Marle

Producer: Reinier Selen

Co-producers: Klara Bjork, Martin Dewitte, Bernard Michaux, Gemma Derksen

Director of photography: Guido van Gennep

Production designer: Harry Ammerlaan

Costume designer: Ellen Lens

Editor: Marcel Wijninga

Music: Adam Norden

Casting: Leonie Luttik, Janusz Gosschalk

Sales: Fortissimo

 

No rating, 97 minutes

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