It’s been a while since one of those sweeping historical dramas wrapped around a tale of star-crossed lovers has come along. The new Dutch film “Bride Flight” is satisfying in that way, weaving together the fates of four young Dutch strangers caught up in the post-WWII migration to New Zealand. Fiancés await the three girls; adventure the guy; all in a land they believe holds infinite promise.
Director Ben Sombogaart begins the story in the present day with a wonderfully weathered Frank (veteran actor Rutger Hauer playing a rugged youth in his later years) surveying his vineyards, stopping in to taste the latest vintage. Soon, three women — scattered around the world and defined by different lives — are opening letters with news of Frank that will bring them together again. The answers to the mystery raised by those first few scenes will come in time as the filmmaker takes us back to the start of the story.
The year is 1953. Holland has been devastated by war and ravaged by floods when the so-called “Last Great Air Race” between London and Christchurch, New Zealand, is set to begin. One of the planes in the contest is the Flying Dutchman, which the media quickly dubs “Bride Flight” because so many of its passengers are young women flying to meet their intended. It’s a bit like the ‘50s version of a party plane to Vegas, champagne pouring and freedom in the air. The parents have been left behind and the responsibilities of their new lives remain in the distance.
The four — Ada (Karina Smulders), Marjorie (Elise Schaap), Esther (Anna Drijver) and Frank (Waldemar Torenstra) — meet in the exciting flush of takeoff, with their lives bound together by the time the 37-hour journey ends. Their stories are rooted in a blend of historical accounts, interviews with those who made the trip and the imagination of screenwriter Marieke van der Pol. The result is a complex story of love and loss and the sorts of painful compromises that the real world usually demands.
The movie’s central story starts with the fire between Frank and Ada, who as seatmates for the trip find time to fall in love. That the ride has its share of turbulence is both reality and a foreshadowing of what is to come. Watching Torenstra and Smulders take their characters from a tentative first conversation to heated passion and stolen kisses to the realization that they are doomed before they even begin, is to be reminded of the intense romantic friction that movies at their best can still create. At times their chemistry burns up the screen, with a particularly excellent erotic scene earning the film its R-rating while a far more troubling moment of spousal abuse didn’t even register a mention. Go figure.
The four émigrés are an eclectic group and represent the diversity in the ranks of that particular Dutch pioneering wave. Esther, who lost her family in a German death camp and wants to forget her Jewish roots, pours herself into fashion design. She’s sharp as a tack and three steps ahead of everyone else in Drijver’s hands. Ada is all soft focus, a face wringed by wisps of blond curls and framed by mournful eyes. Though she bends to a rigid religion and a cold marriage, Smulders lets us see the struggle in every step she takes. Marjorie is the straight arrow in the bunch. All she wants is husband, hearth and kids, but her son comes with a heavy emotional price. Frank is a rogue with the sort of hunky, vintage Ralph Lauren look that can be distraction, but Torenstra is talented and makes him mesmerizing as he turns the fallow land into a vintner’s dream, with or without his shirt on.
Time is painted in various shades, with the director and cinematographer Piotr Kukla using a different palette as the years pass — sepia for the flight itself, warm colors for the early years in New Zealand, intense sunlight and sharp hues for present day. Most of the film is spent in the beautiful haze of the ‘50s and ‘60s. That is where “Bride Flight” is at its strongest; as the fortunes of businesses and relationships rise and fall and the bonds between Ester, Ada, Marjorie and Frank are tested, and sometimes broken.
Sombogaart, who has spent much of his career in the documentary world, never loses sight of the way in which history impacts the individuals who live through it. But the searing romance between Ada and Frank is what interests him most and what ultimately holds this intimate epic together. That proves both a strength and a weakness — making the times they are together sweeter but bringing frustration when their story gives way to someone else’s. As to the taming of a new frontier? Well, the problems of New Zealand really don’t amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world.
MPAA rating: R for a strong sex scene and some graphic nudity
Running time: 2 hours, 10 minutes; Dutch and English with English subtitles
Playing: In selected theaters