, 19 Feb 2007
When Rachel Steins (van Houten) family are murdered while trying to escape Nazi occupied Holland she
joins the Dutch resistance. Changing her name to Ellis de Vries and dying her hair blonde to disguise herself, she catches the eye of high-ranking Nazi Ludwig Muntze (Koch), using her burgeoning relationship with him to spy, all while falling in love.
Double and triple crossing abounds as the resistance tries to survive the last days of the war.
Its not the most fashionable thing Ill ever say but I love Paul Verhoevens movies. Showgirls notwithstanding hes made unfailingly entertaining, if notably extreme, cinema for 30 years now. Hollow Man was an aptly named film and, finding he wasnt being offered anything interesting, Verhoeven took his time before making another, retreating to Holland for the first time since The Fourth Man to do it. The result is the directors most vital and most personal work in years.
Even if it had been released under a pseudonym there would be no doubting the hand behind Black Book. All Verhoevens obsessions raise their head: the bare flesh is here in abundance, the violence, though brief, is extreme and impactful and there are several moments that could only ever belong to this director (van Houten, topless, getting a huge bucket of human effluent poured over her).
Whats most welcome about Black Book though is that it again shows that Verhoevens expertise also lies beyond the sensational. He draws a searing performance from Carice van Houten as Ellis, pulling more emotion out of her than he did the whole casts of Starship Troopers (its many strengths do not include the acting) and Hollow Man combined, particularly in a wrenching scene towards the end where she breaks down in the most convincing fashion Ive seen on screen since Julianne Moore in Boogie Nights.
The other leads are also excellent. Van Houten has good screen chemistry with real life squeeze Koch and he too puts in a solid performance as the films good Nazi. The villainous role is filled by an odious and creepy Kobus.
The cinematography of Karl Walter Lindenlaub lends a beautiful sheen to all the ugliness depicted here, its a great looking film.
Black Book isnt perfect though. Like most of Verhoevens work for all its virtues as quality entertainment its a little shallow. The Nazis are thinly depicted in the good one (Koch) and the bad one (Kobus) and the romance between Ellis and Muntze never truly convinces; you believe shed sleep with this man for her own ends, but not the emotional connection, however hard the actors work. Theres also a structural issue: the bulk of the film is structured as a flashback and this saps some tension out of Verhoevens otherwise nerve jangling set pieces.
All this said Black Book is an exceedingly good film, a barnstorming return to form for Verhoeven and a wonderful calling card for van Houten, wholl surely soon be finding work in English.
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