It's certainly true today, and probably always has been, that the majority of American independent and foreign features that reach U.S. theatres are little slices of life—shaped that way not just for budgetary reasons, but as a deliberate alternative to the escapist hyperbole of so much mainstream product. Still, once in a while even a diehard arthouse patron wants something sprawling, juicy, even melodramatic, like the “sweeping epics” of yore. (But not like most recent mainstream stabs at the like, most conspicuous offender being that heap of clichés Australia.)
Here to satisfy that itch—finally, since it was released in Belgium and the Netherlands nearly three years ago—is Dutch film/TV veteran Ben Sombogaart's Bride Flight. This decades-spanning drama charts the interlinked fates of three women and one man from the 1950s to the present day. It's a little hokey and more than a little soap-operatic.
But it's also a big fat historical-romantic novel in screen form, offering all the pleasures (some guilty ones) of a movie that might well have been made 60 years ago, and which your mom and grandma might duly love. At least they would if it didn't have a few very modern, fairly graphic sex scenes. But now we're talking about my mother (let's not even bring up granny). Your female elders might well be more relaxed, even titillated. In any case, this is a pleasurably epic chick flick, meaning that dudes not up for over two hours of hot passion and noble suffering in period dress will have to be dragged to the theater in exchange for winning date-night points. Who knows, they too might wind up enjoying it.
Marieke van der Pol's screenplay springs from an actual event of considerable Dutch pride: In 1953, a KLM airplane won a highly publicized race from London to Christchurch. This was no daredevil contest between small-crew aircraft, but rather pre-jet-age major commercial carriers. Passengers on the Netherlands' “Bride Flight” consisted largely of women escaping post-WW2 hardship and underemployment in the Netherlands to join fiancés already carving out new lives in a resource-rich New Zealand still “developing” along late British colonialist lines.
There's nothing of the Maori protests against aggressive urbanization here, sole native given prominence being Mosie (played by Rob Mokaraka, then later Rawiri Paratene). He's best friend and loyal employee to Dutch immigrant Frank (Rutger Hauer, making his first native-language feature in nearly 30 years), who at the film's start we see expiring of a heart attack at an advanced age in his beloved NZ vineyards.
Then we flash back to that eventful 1953 flight, when strapping young Frank (Waldemar Torenstra) was first journeying to his adopted homeland—as were three-already promised brides nonetheless distracted by his unpretentious masculine charm. Esther (Anna Drijver) is a sultry flirt and aspiring dress designer who survived the Holocaust, albeit barely. She now seeks a life not bound by religious or ethnic identity but by her own urbane, creative sophistication. Marjorie (Elise Schapp) is a giddy girl looking forward to breeding a large brood with her beau, but also bearing a lot of social snobbery that “laid-back” NZ life might trigger.
Yet Frank's interest is riveted by his seatmate Ada (Karina Smulders), a simple farm girl making her first journey anywhere—the plane's turbulence terrifies her—to join a man she's already married “by proxy,” whom she allowed to deflower and impregnate her out of pity for his own war-lost family tragedy. They spark mightily in mid-air. But when the contest-winning carrier finally reaches Christchurch (just 25 minutes into 130-minute Bride Flight), Ada is whisked off to her husband's restrictive, remote religious community.
Even greater immediate turbulence upends the expectations of Marjorie and Esther, who find themselves joined in a painful secretive pact involving child-rearing/bearing. Meanwhile Frank and Ada pine for each other, another secret that also triggers scandal and a mutual happiness scale that runs from A to Z.
All this is framed by sequences in which the now 70-something women (Pleuni Touw as Ada, Petra Laseur as Marjorie, Willeke van Ammelrooy as Esther) meet for the first time in many years for Frank's funeral. Needless to say, old wounds must be opened, and some healing must occur.
It's a testament to Bride Flight's refined craftsmanship that all this is ultimately more involving and persuasive than manipulative and corny. (Although Jeannot Sanavia's very conventional orchestral score definitely leans toward the latter.) Piotr Kukla's widescreen cinematography of mostly New Zealand landscapes is, naturally, gorgeous. Among other smart design contributions, Linda Bogers deserves special kudos for incarnating the talented, ambitious, flamboyant designs of Esther—who both becomes the two islands' greatest fashion innovator and remains a little too innovative for them—as a perfect composite of changing period styles.
The junior and senior actors are all fine. But the prize among them might well go to Torenstra, who gets relatively little screen time. He anchors the whole enterprise as a sensitive man's-man dreamboat with no apparent agenda save livestock or agriculture (a la Hugh Jackman in Australia), enchanting every woman crossing his path while holding out for True Love. He's playing a severely underwritten fantasy figure—an outback-cowboy wet dream worthy of tawdry romance paperbacks.
Still, the actor preserves his dignity, as well as the film's sexual tension. With a less-charismatic hero at the center, Bride Flight would have tumbled from melodrama to outright absurdity. He's a comer.
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