Sonny Boy: Film Review

Old-fashioned Dutch epic hits the right emotional notes.

The Netherlands’ Oscars submission for best foreign film spans a number of hot-button topics across two decades while still appealing to traditional tastes.

In a recent interview, Mark Johnson, the long-term chairman of the foreign language committee of the Academy, said that he had encouraged producers around the world to submit edgier movies as their Oscar candidate,  instead of the “soft, safe movies” that they thought were more in sync with Oscar voters’ tastes.  This campaign by Johnson also incorporated a new system of voting, which led to the controversial inclusion of the bizarre Greek film, Dogtooth, among the nominees last year.  But not all countries have fallen in line with the new program.  The Netherlands’ submission for best foreign film this year, Sonny Boy, is a traditional film very much in the Masterpiece Theatre mold.  It also happens to be a good movie, though whether it will pass muster with the new elite “supercommittees” that Johnson has instituted remains to be seen.  It will, however, be enjoyed by audiences who get a chance to see it.

For one thing, it has an impressive scale, beginning in the 1920s and taking its characters through the end of World War II.  Director Maria Peters, working with a first-rate technical team, does a fine job recreating the period scenes, but she never lets the production design overwhelm the intimate human story.  The film is based on a Dutch best-seller by Annejet van der Zijl that recounted the true story of an interracial romance that spanned decades.  Rika (Ricky Koole) is separated from her husband when she rents a room to Waldemar (Sergio Hasselbaink), a young black student from Surinam.  He comes from a well educated, affluent family in South America, but he nonetheless inflames the prejudice of their Dutch neighbors, especially when the two begin a passionate love affair.  They have a son together, but their romance comes at a high price; Rika loses custody of her four older children.  When Rika and Waldemar are evicted from their home, they are taken in by a Jewish saloon keeper.  During the Nazi occupation, Rika repays the favor by hiding a number of Jewish refugees.

The film covers so many hot-button topics that it sometimes seems like a Dutch Stanley Kramer movie (Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner crossed with Judgment at Nuremberg).  What saves it is that Peters keeps her focus on the characters rather than the issues.  She is helped enormously by Koole, a marvelously earthy actress who always finds telling details to bring her character alive.  Rika is defying convention not merely by cohabiting with a black man but also one who happens to be 17 years her junior.  Koole and Hasselbaink illuminate the conflicts between them as well as the passionate attraction.  Not all of the characters are so well drawn.  As Rika’s unforgiving ex-husband, Marcel Hensema is almost as much of a one-dimensional villain as the sadistic Nazi officer who interrogates her late in the film. 

Peters’ direction is solid rather than inspired, but the pacing is brisk enough to keep the audience engaged during all the chapters of this saga.  Lush cinematography, set and costume design also enhance the film.  While some elements of this story are familiar from other movies, it works primarily because of the presence of Koole, who proves to be one of Holland’s most alluring and eloquent actresses.


Bottom line:  Old-fashioned Dutch epic hits the right emotional notes.

Production:  Shooting Star Film Company.

Cast:  Ricky Koole, Sergio Hasselbaink, Marcel Hensema, Frits Lambrechts, Misha Hulshof, Gaite Jansen, Daniel van Wijk.

Director:  Maria Peters.

Screenwriters:  Maria Peters, Pieter van de Waterbeemd.

Based on the book by:  Annejet van der Zijl.

Producers:  Hans Pos, Dave Schram.

Director of photography:  Walther VandenEnde

Production designer:  Jan Rutgers.

Music:  Henry Vrienten.

Costume designer:  Bho Roosterman-Vroegen.

Editor:  Or Louw.

No rating, 132 minutes.