The Cost of Sugar (Hoe duur was de suiker): Film Review

A female-driven melodrama against the backdrop of slavery that can't decide which story to tell.

African-born, Netherlands-based director Jean van de Velde casts Gaite Jansen and Yootha Wong-Loi-Sing in his period drama set in 18th century Suriname.

UTRECHT -- Less a Dutch 12 Years a Slave than a low-rent, Low-Countries attempt at Gone with the Wind -- with all the problems that that comparison implies -- the female-driven melodrama The Cost of Sugar (Hoe duur was de suiker) chronicles the tortured love life of a spoiled white plantation girl in 18th-century Suriname (then part of Dutch Guiana) while, for the most part, the girl’s mulatto half-sister and house slave, who technically narrates the tale, simply looks on.

The recent Netherlands Film Festival opening film is a very loose adaptation of the eponymous bestseller by Surinamese novelist Cynthia McLeod (daughter of independent Suriname’s first president, Johan Ferrier), and is no doubt well intentioned, though its tendency to foreground a dominantly white perspective doesn’t jive with its choice of a black narrator (which is different from the book). Africa-born, Netherlands-based director Jean van de Velde, whose Cannes-selected The Silent Army, about African child soldiers, suffered from similar point-of-view problems, at least manages to get an juicy lead performance out of young actress Gaite Jansen (Paul Verhoeven’s Tricked), who impressively goes all out in embodying the porcelain-skinned spitfire of privilege that’s the tale’s true protagonist.

The Cost of Sugarhas been playing on about 100 screens locally and has amassed a tidy if not exceptional $1.1 million in three weeks. Released to coincide with the abolishment of slavery by the Dutch in Suriname 150 years ago this year, it will premiere in the South American nation in December.

Sarith Fernandes (Jansen), a beautiful but tempestuous young woman, and her plainer step sister, Elza (Anna Raadsveld), are the daughters of Dutch-Jewish plantation owners in mid-1700s Suriname. They know their privileged world and its rules inside out, unlike Rutger le Chasseur (Yannick van de Velde, the director’s actor son), an inexperienced and milquetoast administrator who’s just arrived from the Netherlands. Rutger’s somewhat puzzling cluelessness about slavery allows van de Velde, who also penned the screenplay, to sketchily explain the situation of Suriname’s field and house slaves while awkwardly trying to wring some humor from the proceedings. The occasional narrator, Mini-Mini (Yootha Wong-Loi-Sing), who’s likely Sarith’s half sister, is an example of the latter and she’s fiercely loyal to her mistress because, well, the screenplay says so.

Though smitten with Sarith, the scrawny Rutger has to settle for Elza because Sarith’s holding out for the handsome Nathan (Benja Bruijning), who announces during Elza and Rutger’s wedding that he’ll soon be marrying too, though not to Sarith, a revelation she lives down in true drama queen fashion.

The film’s midsection is essentially a chronicle of Sarith’s odyssey to find a man that will have and subsequently put up with her, which, despite her beauty and station, is easier said than done. This could have made for an old-fashioned and melodramatic but fascinating story of an independent-minded young woman’s almost paradoxical fight for the right to choose the man who’ll marry her on her own terms in a (white) male-dominated environment. A Gone with the Wind-light energy and verve is on display here, though by the film’s midpoint, it has become painfully clear that Sugar can’t decide who are the protagonists and who are supporting characters — and the subplots and issues attached to these characters likewise swerve in and out of view.

Finally, only Sarith’s dramatic personality and life emerge as a narrative throughline, which only pushes the quiet Mini-Mini further into the background. There are way too few scenes that really peel back the layers of their complex bond and which give due time to Mini-Mini’s difficult position as a slave, confidante and half-sister rolled into one and when she's finally pushed center stage, it highlights not a shift in perspective so much as a confirmation that the film's first and foremost about female feelings rather than more abstract concepts such as slavery.

The complicated political situation in Dutch Guiana, which was going through the Boni wars that pitted Maroons against white settlers, is also touched upon but never fleshed out in a subplot involving Mini-Mini’s hunky if token black love interest, Caesar (rapper Maurits Delchot), who’ll instigate the film’s low-key finale.

Though clearly a modest period piece, van de Velde at least manages to squeeze the most out of the production design and costumes, courtesy of South African veterans Darryl Hammer and Rae Donnelly. South African locations and supporting cast (including Deon Lotz, Mary Twala and Tina Mnumzana) are well-integrated, and the use of Sranan Tongo for some of the dialog lends the proceedings a further air of authenticity.

Venue: Netherlands Film Festival (Opening Film)

Production companies: Paul Voorthuysen Pictures, Richard Claus & Co.

Cast: Gaite Jansen, Yootha Wong-Loi-Sing, Benja Bruijning, Yannick van de Velde, Kees boot, Anna Raadsveld, Maurits Delchot, Genelva Krind, Werker Kolf, Deon Lotz, Mary Twala, Tina Mnumzana

Writer-Director: Jean van de Velde, screenplay based on the novel by Cynthia McLeod

Producers: Paul Voorthuysen, Richard Claus

Executive producer: Michael Auret

Director of photography: Guilio Biccari

Production designer: Darryl Hammer

Music: Het Paleis van Boem

Costume designer: Rae Donnelly

Editor: Job ter Burg

No rating, 120 minutes.