One of the few seemingly spontaneous bursts of energy at last week's Oscar ceremony was provided by motormouthing Dutch director Mike van Diem, who seemed genuinely surprised to have won the award for best foreign film for his debut feature, Character. If the commercial popularity and Oscar sweep for Titanic reveal a desire to return to traditional, old-fashioned storytelling, Character's award (and its likely smaller-scale success) should constitute further proof. Except for a very few daring moments, Character -- which was adapted from a classic 1938 Dutch novel -- is, both in technique and in subject matter, solidly retro. The story is set in Holland in the early '20s: A young man named Jakob Katadreuffe (Fedja van Huet) is arrested for the murder of surly, heartless public official Dreverhaven (Jan Decleir). As the police interrogate Jakob, he denies the crime, while revealing -- in a flashback occupying most of the film -- that he is in fact Dreverhaven's illegitimate son.
It seems that, some 25 years earlier, Jakob's mother, Joba (Betty Schuurman), was Dreverhaven's maid. One night, in a moment of passion uncharacteristic for either of them, she becomes pregnant with her boss' child. She tells Dreverhaven, but, without further explanation, moves out and refuses his persistent proposals of marriage, choosing instead to raise Jakob alone.
As miserable as life with Dreverhaven might have proven for the boy, living alone with Joba isn't exactly a walk in the park, either. Dour and distant, she is so uncommunicative that it's surprising Jakob even learns to speak.
But, being a clever lad, he survives both his upbringing and the taunts of the neighborhood kids to become ambitious and well-educated. He even teaches himself English out of some abandoned books, eventually parlaying his bilingual talents to secure an entry-level job at a law firm. Under the benevolent guidance of his boss, De Gankelaar (Victor Low, an actor with a chin so pronounced he makes Jay Leno look like Andy Gump), Jakob studies for the bar. Driven to succeed, he forgoes emotional entanglements of all kinds.
But he soon discovers that the resentful Dreverhaven, who still wants to marry Joba, has been moving behind the scenes to make his life miserable. His hatred for his father only fuels his ambition further.
It's an intriguingly melodramatic story, with a dark visual style that matches its tone. On one or two occasions, van Diem indulges in some oddball narrative touches. (The most interesting has the narrator of a flashback suddenly revealed to be speaking his narration from within the flashback -- shades of Last Year at Marienbad.)
Most of the time, however, the movie proceeds in the classic fashion of Sam Wood's Kings Row ('42) or Goodbye Mr. Chips ('39). (It's nowhere near as daring as, say, Orson Welles' The Magnificent Ambersons, also from '42.)
Within its modest ambitions, Character is a memorable, sometimes even stunning, debut. Unfortunately, for American audiences, it has some problems that are not really van Diem's fault. For instance, van Huet is a dead ringer for Robert Downey Jr., which is occasionally distracting. (The similarity is so undeniable that even van Diem himself mentions it in the press notes.) Far more distracting is the evil Dreverhaven's unfortunate resemblance to Terry Jones as the upchucking Mr. Creosote in Monty Python's The Meaning of Life.
Nor is the subtitling particularly adept. One scene has what is probably the worst moment of translation this side of Hong Kong: When Jakob and a bunch of kids are questioned by the cops about a petty theft, the kids, presumably trying to remain anonymous, all claim the rather generic name "Johnson." Since Americans are presumably thought to be too dumb to get the joke, the subtitles translate "Johnson" as "Smith" -- thus pulling us out of the story's reality and guaranteeing giggles.
While oversimplifying in that case, the subtitles undersimplify in another: Dreverhaven is, without further explanation, identified as a "bailiff" -- apparently meaning something like "chief of police," but certainly not jibing with the American sense of the word.
Melodrama fans who are prepared to compensate for these unfortunate missteps in the movie's presentation should find themselves utterly satisfied by van Diem's tale. It may not be especially groundbreaking, but it provides an absorbing two hours.