I use the old-fashioned term, yarn, because "Black Book" is very much a film that feels like it was made decades ago. The lush visuals, orchestral music, European styling, wartime romanticism and cliffhanging chapters all add a certain 1950's charm to the white-knuckle plot. One gets the feeling that the ghosts of Gregory Peck, Hedy Lamarr, Ava Gardner, Spencer Tracy & Jean Harlow are embodying the cast of this classic espionage drama.
The film begins in 1956 with Rachel Steinn, a school teacher at an Israeli kibbutz, being accidentally found by an old acquaintance, who is on vacation with her husband. The meeting brings back painful wartime memories and Rachel heads to a quiet place by the river to recollect our central story.
So back we travel, to occupied Holland, circa 1944, and we see a more youthful Rachel, diligently practicing a bible passage in order to earn a meal from the family who is hiding her from the Germans. She, like many Jews at that time, were surviving by any means necessary in order to outlast the Nazi tyranny. However, one day, while flirting with a young man sailing on the nearby lake, her safe zone is destroyed in one fell swoop by a low flying bomber. Rachel is immediately on the run, aided by her new sailor friend.
So much of this film relies on surprises and shocking twists that it would be unfair of me to detail too many plot threads. And my goodness, there are a tons of them. This is truly a definitive epic, in every cinematic sense of the word. Rachel is crossed and doubled-crossed and triple-crossed, eventually winding up as a member of the famed Resistance. Via cunning and fortunate circumstance, she manages to transform herself into Ellis de Vries, a blond bombshell who infiltrates the German command in the area. She uses a quick wit, a gorgeous voice, some feminine charms and a collection of Queen Wilhelmina stamps to crawl her way into the arms of Herr Müntze (Sebastian Koch).
From deep within the Nazi camp, she is able to strategically plant a microphone and to use tidbits of acquired knowledge in order to provide the Resistance with vital information and plans. While evolving into a brave spy, she must learn how to reconcile her own personal vendettas and her surprising romantic feelings for Müntze.
There are no more exciting themes for me in movies than tragic romance, espionage and escape. I have loved them all with a passion ever since I was a small child. Throw in a magnificent screenplay, marvelous cinematography, a plot that churns along with the efficiency of a Swiss watch, and the added bonus of a gorgeous actress -- the result is sure to be a huge winner for me. "Black Book" satisfies everything that I truly want from a film. It is the reason I go to the movies. I was utterly swept away by the intrigue, drama, romance and tragedy. This emotionally weighty film even manages to deliver a few wonderfully witty moments to break the supreme tension of it all.
The cast is immense. Every one of them exudes authenticity. It is one of the best ensembles of the year. However, I struggle to call it an ensemble because it would be ignoring one of the singular performances in recent memory. Carice Van Houten is not a household name to most. She is a Dutch beauty who, if this role is anything to go by, is on the verge of a magnificent career. Her grasp on the emotional turmoil of Rachel/Ellis is of profound proportions. It is a stunning turn that flatly demands award consideration. The range on display in this movie is astonishing. Rarely have I ever been as moved by a character's heroism and charm and guile and wits. She is able to create a sympathetic creature... one that we will root for until the end... one that we trust and believe in.
I cannot leave this review without admitting to my utter admiration for Paul Verhoeven, a director whose films I have often enjoyed and panned in equal measures. This is the work of his lifetime. It is the film he should list above all others on his résumé. This is a thoughtful, poignant and tremendously thrilling adventure. For attentive viewers, the final scenes of the film act as a provocative meditation on the relationships between war and justice, peace and insularity, the actions of the past and the promises of the future. "Black Book (Zwartboek)" is not only a riveting WWII adventure, but a superb contrast of morality -vs- reality.
TC Candler IndependentCritics.com