The Dinner (Het diner): Toronto Review

Het Diner Still - H 2013
Courtesy of TIFF
Scores uneasy laughs but also has a more serious undertow.

The first Dutch-language feature from screenwriter and occasional director Menno Meyjes ("The Color Purple") stars Jacob Derwig, Thekla Reuten and Kim van Kooten.

TORONTO -- Two brothers and their wives meet in a fancy restaurant to discuss the misdeeds of their teenage children in The Dinner, the first ever Dutch-language production of the Holland-born screenwriter and occasional director Menno Meyjes (The Color Purple, the alternative Adolf Hitler tale Max, with John Cusack).

The story’s setup is reminiscent of Yasmine Reza’s 2006 hit play God of Carnage, recently filmed by Roman Polanski with Jodie Foster and Kate Winslet, which might have been an influence on the eponymous Herman Koch novel from 2009 that Meyjes adapts here. With a solid cast and a mordant, politically incorrect -- some might say brutally honest -- protagonist that acts as a gateway into this prickly story of 21st-century and big-city malaise, this jittery widescreen film scores both uneasy laughs and has a more serious (if not fully developed) dramatic undertow that’ll appeal to several demographics at home, where it’ll be released in November.

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The book has sold over a million copies in various translations (including English), which can only bode well for the film’s chances as a crossover arthouse item offshore. 

Like Carnage, The Dinner consists mainly of one long conversation between two couples of concerned parents who have to balance their natural instinct to protect their offspring, even if they committed a crime, with people and society’s desire to punish the bad behavior of others. To avoid making things feel too theatrical, Meyjes not only employs dynamic camerawork inside the waterside, glass-fronted restaurant where the parents meet but he also dots the story with flashbacks that fill in the backstory

The film’s rather unusual protagonist and narrator (who occasionally looks directly into the camera, making the audience complicit in what he’s doing) is Paul Lohman (Jacob Derwig), a somewhat aggressive contrarian and a former educator whose pretty radical ideas -- he asked his students once why all the people who were jerks and died in the war should be on war monuments at all -- got him suspended and even got his 16-year-old son, Michel (Jonas Smulders), in trouble when he braided some of his father’s ideas into a school essay.

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Michel’s mother, Claire (Thekla Reuten), has some secrets of her own but the reason the dinner takes place is mainly because Paul’s brother, the oily Serge (Daan Schuurmans), is a politician who hopes to become the Netherlands’ new premier. This potential culmination of his political career, however, would be in danger if word ever got out about what Michel and his cousin, Rick (Serge Mensink), the son of Serge and Babette (Kim van Kooten), have done, much to the consternation of Beau (Andre Dongelmans), Rick’s adopted brother from Burkina Faso (in one of the film’s many calculated, potentially offensive moments, “Faso” is actually the boy’s nickname).

Though superficially structured as a mystery, the film’s less interested in keeping what Rick and Michel have done under wraps than in examining the reactions to what has happened of the four adults, as they are served dishes whose names are longer than the plates they’re served on are full. But, like in the novel, only Paul emerges as a fully rounded character and it’s only thanks to a committed and multifaceted performance from Derwig (from the Oscar-nominated Zus & Zo) that audiences are willing to stick with someone who’s more honest but also more socially inept than someone with Asperger’s or Tourette’s. Derwig’s co-stars are all game, except for young Smulders, whose inexperience can’t overcome the underwritten nature of his role.

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Indeed, it’s a shame that The Dinner doesn’t explore the rapport of Paul and Michel more, as the aggressive and verbally obnoxious father was surely an influence on the criminally inclined son (this could have also helped end the film on a stronger note). And though clearly also meant as a portrait of a wealthy generation lost in a world in which senseless violence seems to have become a fact of life, Meyjes offers mostly scattershot suggestions and hints rather than fully formed ideas.

That the film still manages to be captivating is in large part thanks to its edgy humor and the dramatic dynamics, with the four potentially explosive parents constantly keeping things at or near the boiling point.

Venue: Toronto Film Festival (Contemporary World Cinema)

Production company: Eyeworks Film & TV, Inspire Pictures, RTL Entertainment
Cast: Jacob Derwig, Thekla Reuten, Daan Schuurmans, Kim van Kooten, Jonas Smulders, Serge Mensink, Andre Dongelmans
Writer-Director: Menno Meyjes, screenplay based on the novel by Herman Koch
Producers: Reinout Oerlemans, Maarten Swart
Executive producers: Caldecott Chubb, Ronald van Wechem
Director of photography: Sander Snoep
Production designer: Alfred Schaaf
Music: Fons Merkies
Costume designers: Marion Boor, Marian van Nieuwenhuyzen
Editor: Michiel Reichwein
Sales: Media Luna New Films
No rating, 88 minutes.