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Rachel gets rescued

spy games in Black Book

Carice van Houten

Ellis and Muntze

Black Book
cast: Carice Van Houten, Sebastian Koch, Thom Hoffman, Halina Reijn, and Waldemar Kobus

director: Paul Verhoeven

145 minutes (15) 2006
widescreen ratio 2.35:1
Tartan DVD Region 2 retail

RATING: 9/10
reviewed by Donald Morefield
Not to be confused with the similarly titled British TV comedy series, Black Book (aka: Zwartboek) is a minor epic set at end of the Second World War. It concerns the sometimes gruelling adventures of beautiful Dutch singer Rachel, alias Ellis, a Jewish refugee who's recruited by the Resistance to spy on German officer Müntze (Sebastian Koch), who's suspected of directing an unconscionable campaign of executions after systematic ambushes on fleeing civilians that's left plucky survivor Rachel alone in a perilous Europe.

Paul Verhoeven's return to the screen (well, it's been a long wait since Hollow Man) showcases a compelling, brilliant performance from Carice van Houten (notable for Martin Koolhoven's TV movie, Suzy Q, 1999) as the archetypal war heroine, both feisty and glamorous yet driven to edgy fanaticism by a thirst for revenge on the Nazi scum who slaughtered her defenceless family.

hello boys

Boasting its share of 1950s' style cinema shots, musical moments, espionage drama clichés (handsome protagonists and unpleasant villains, betrayal by double-agent, etc), Black Book also features many of Verhoeven's uncompromisingly sensational, cinematic signatures, including the amusingly pornographic displays of full-frontal nudity (male and female), depictions of grossly uncivilised behaviour that so often lead to poignant tragedy and crude splatter effects - as when our captured heroine is savagely beaten by a mob, then gets drenched in raw sewage - and the pacing of an appealingly transatlantic style narrative, obviously resulting from the influence of American cinema on the successful European director's filmmaking techniques following over a decade-long stint working on Hollywood blockbusters (including RoboCop and Basic Instinct).

What perhaps distinguishes Black Book from recent other WWII films is its expert handling of detective movie intrigues, action-thriller sequences, and the accent on the cultural and religious conflicts that lurks in the astutely created background of period details. Despite assembling these disparate elements, however, Verhoeven's ambiguously exciting, chillingly suspenseful, sometimes wryly comic, surprisingly romantic wartime drama is, unquestionably, worth more than the sum of it parts.

"What's my role in this boys' club?"

As the Dutch heroine who falls in love with a German soldier, Carice van Houten's postmodern 'Mata Hari' is a fascinating and attractive principal character. Earnest and pragmatic, yet passionate and stubborn, she dominates the screen as easily as the formidable Sharon Stone in Verhoeven's Basic Instinct. Like few other movies set during WWII, Verhoeven's Black Book fields bold attempts to overturn clichés, of both uniformly despicable Nazis and angelic freedom fighters of the Resistance, ensuring this is an engagingly revisionist piece of work, balancing accounts of stoic Dutch heroism or German evil with plot twists involving secondary characters, on both sides of the conflict, that are guilty of betrayal and compassion.

If truth is the first casualty of war, then Black Book seeks to remind us that history is written by the victors, and reveals how morality goes through the wringer during any societal and patriotic crisis where a nation is occupied by enemy forces. There are plenty of moments that portray both exquisite inhumanity and blundering humanity in this film. The criticism from certain quarters that events in Black Book defy credibility hardly matters at all when such highly impressive production values help to sweep the whole thing along smoothly, and it requires no effort whatsoever from viewers to overlook the occasionally episodic storyline, exploring the grey areas of integrity.

The DVD extras include filmed interviews with director Paul Verhoeven and star Carice van Houten.

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