Winter in Wartime -- Film Review

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PALM SPRINGS -- World War II movies often are favorites of Academy voters, and Holland's entry in this year's foreign-language film Oscar race, "Winter in Wartime," has a good chance to be recognized when nominations are announced. It bears resemblance to another Dutch movie about the Resistance, Paul Verhoeven's "Black Book," a contender for the Oscars three years ago. "Winter" actually is a less-hyperbolic melodrama; indeed, it's one of the most beautifully crafted movies in this year's race. Even if it fails to snag a nomination, it deserves to be picked up for U.S. distribution because it has enough excitement to seize the attention of discriminating audiences.

The time is January 1945, and food is scarce in Nazi-occupied Holland. A 14-year-old, Michiel (Martijn Lakemeier), is bored and dreaming of adventure, itching to play his part in the Resistance. He has an opportunity when he and a friend witness the shoot-down of an RAF pilot who goes into hiding in the nearby forest. Michiel resolves to help the pilot escape, and as he gets more deeply involved in the Resistance, he places his family in jeopardy.

Michiel is disdainful of his father, the town mayor, who tries to placate the Nazi leaders, though the boy is more worshipful of his uncle Ben, a Resistance fighter who moves in with the family. Yet the strength of the film is the way in which a more complex worldview gradually reshapes Michiel's fantasies. There are plenty of unexpected twists as the story builds to a powerful conclusion.

Director Martin Koolhoven sustains the young protagonist's point of view throughout the film. We see nothing that he does not see or experience, yet we feel the director is showing us absolutely everything we need to see. The bleakness of the wintry setting is beautifully caught by cinematographer Guido van Gennep. Some of the suspense scenes, like the opening plane crash or when Michiel falls beneath the ice and, to his dismay, is rescued by a German soldier, are absolutely thrilling. But there also are wonderfully tender, intimate scenes including one in which Michiel's father teaches him how to shave.

Young Lakemeier's performance is poignant without ever falling into sentimentality. Jamie Campbell Bower as the baby-faced British pilot adds another dimension to the film's portrayal of boys devastated by war. Raymond Thiry as Michiel's father etches a fine portrayal, blending pragmatism with understated nobility.

Technical credits are first-rate. The score by veteran composer Pino Donaggio is a major asset. While the film has the rousing action of the best Hollywood war films, it ends on a note of melancholy that testifies to the maturity of these gifted filmmakers.

Venue: Palm Springs International Film Festival
Cast: Martijn Lakemeier, Yorick van Wageningen, Jamie Campbell Bower, Raymond Thiry, Melody Klaver
Director: Martin Koolhoven
Screenwriters: Paul Jan Nelissen, Mieke de Jong, Martin Koolhoven
Based on the novel by: Jan Terlouw
Producers: Els Vandevorst, San Fu Maltha
Director of photography: Guido van Gennep
Production designer: Floris Vos
Music: Pino Donaggio
Costume designer: Alette Kraan
Editor: Job Ter Burg
No rating, 103 minutes
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