Black Book

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Movie Review by Neil Sadler

Starring: Carice van Houten, Sebastian Koch, Thom Hoffman, Halina Reijn
Director: Paul Verhoeven

Paul Verhoeven is known more for pushing the boundaries of sex and violence than for his storytelling skills. Looking back on films such as ROBOCOP, BASIC INSTINCT and TOTAL RECALL however, it is easy to ignore the simple storytelling that makes these noisy and provocative films far more watchable than the messy explosions and effects of some recent Hollywood blockbusters.

BLACK BOOK represents not only a return to his native Netherlands but also what appears to be a far more personal project for Verhoeven. Growing up in the occupied Netherlands in the 2nd World War, Verhoeven certainly has more invested in this story, than perhaps ROBOCOP or STARSHIP TROOPERS. Indeed, he has spent the last twenty years working on it, adapting the story of true events of the time.

BLACK BOOK is one woman’s story – and this is its strength. As we follow Rachel (Carice Van Houten) from her hiding place at a Dutch farm through the dying years of World War 2 to liberation and beyond, she is the only constant in a story of constantly shifting loyalties. No one is completely truthful, even Rachel, but we see her lies exposed as they happen. The story relies on us wanting to accompany Rachel on this journey and for the most part, it is a journey you want to take. Whether she is dealing with the Resistance or the Nazis, Rachel is the one character we trust and it is Carice Van Houten’s honest performance that is our anchor through the story.

This is, in many ways, a traditional war story. It is brave in that all the characters – Nazi’s, Resistance fighters, collaborators and Allies – are seen to be “shades of grey” rather than the two dimensional evil and good characters. Probably the most shocking atrocity is committed by the Dutch themselves, as an act of revenge against those they see as collaborators with the Nazis.

There is no shirking from sex or violence in this film – but then this film was directed by a man that has made a career from shocking American audiences with both. Only occasionally does it feel a bit gratuitous.

Verhoeven has honed his craft making entertainment and this film always entertains despite it being a long film with quite a few stories to follow. Perhaps at times, he entertains too much and it makes the story (which is based on true events but not a true story of one person) feel less real. It reminded me at times of SCHINDLER’S LIST, another personal project by a director known for mass entertainment. In that film, I felt the weakest parts were those times when Spielberg was at his most “Spielbergian” (the shower scene and the girl in the red coat.) Just like that film, BLACK BOOK is much better than the sum of its flaws.

BLACK BOOK is a powerful and thrilling adventure. Thanks to a great story and some fine performances, the film is always absorbing and provides some interesting insights into what it felt like to live in an occupied Netherlands at this time.

4 out of 6 stars