Please Note: The images used here are taken from promotional stills, not from the blu-ray.
Why is there something so particularly unsatisfying--or at least unsatisfying in its own particular way--about a film like Winter in Wartime? Martin Koorhoven's WWII drama is very ably put together; in a certain sense, it is a textbook example of well-crafted, solid, straightforward storytelling. But it may be just that textbook quality that leaves us feeling, yes, entertained, but merely entertained: there is something grimly workmanlike and unambitious in its adherence to all the basic principles of a well-spun yarn. It does take us on a smoothly run rollercoaster ride of ups, downs, twists, and thrills, but there is something too smooth about it; it operates almost mechanically, seeming to glide too casually and nonchalantly along its one direct, forward-moving track, never digressing and never taking us anywhere unexpected or indelible.
The film's story is that of young Michiel (MartijnLakemeier), the 13-year-old son of a mayor whose German-occupied Dutch town wearily awaits the departure of their tyrannical visitors as the war draws to a close in 1945. For the most part, the town just tries to go about its business and avoid taking sides or rocking the boat. Michiel's Uncle Ben (Yorick van Wageningen) is a representative of the anti-Nazi Resistance and a hero to our young protagonist and his sister, Erica (Melody Klaver); but as the mayor, Michiel's father (Raymond Thiry) is stuck with placating the Germans. Though quietly putting the interests of his constituents first and even aiding some Jews as they flee the country, his obligatory cover of making nice with the Germans is steadily costing him the respect of his son, particularly in light of Uncle Ben's more openly defiant heroics. When Michiel befriends, hides, and aids Jack (Jamie Campbell Bower), a wounded English paratrooper who has killed a German and is consequently the subject of an intensive manhunt, he runs the risk of incurring the deadly wrath of the anxious, desperate German occupiers, and he has to decide whom to trust. Erica, who works as a nurse and could treat Jack's deteriorating, wounded condition? His father, who "laughs with Germans" and whom Michiel now regards somewhat warily? Uncle Ben, who has sternly warned Michiel never to get involved in anything to do with the war? As the tension rises and time runs out, complications develop that reveal to Michiel, sometimes tragically, the real nature of the people closest to him.
Koolhoven keeps all the plates spinning throughout, the performances are fine, and cinematographer Guido Van Gennep helps him create a snowy world so vivid you can practically feel the cold. But there is something about how confident and competent the film is that actually adds to its overall sense of inconsequentiality; it's not "slick," exactly, but every frame has the sleek air of something that very self-awarely aspires to be nothing more than a rousing adventure story, which paradoxically leaves us frequently interested, but almost never really roused. The film may employ slow-motion for the intensely emotional moments and an oddly John Williams-like score by Pino Donaggio with noticeable technical skill, but these elements only add to the feeling that it is trying to fit into some middlebrow area of being smart but not too smart, intriguing but not too deep or "heavy"; it could be about so much more (its most noticeable failure is in its vague afterthought of an attempt to mourn the fact that war forces children to grow up before their time--right concern, wrong film). Koolhoven is content to tell a tale that shares thematic territory with Anne Frank in a style that's pure Indiana Jones (an actor interviewed in the making-of, included in the disc's extras, even describes the experience as "like working on an Indiana Jones movie"), and that kind of contentment skirts the edge of complacency and flirts with dullness. Perhaps Koolhoven felt too bound by the script, which he and his cowriters adapted from the 1972 novel by Jan Terlouw; the proceedings have the feel of hitting marks, points on a diagram, with no real reluctance but also without much passion. It feels like the work of a professional storyteller, but not that of a very inspired one, let alone an artist.
Again, the film's bright spots are that it is, when all is said and done, quite pretty to look at, and the story it tells is one that, while familiar enough (how many movies will there be about each and every aspect of World War II before our appetite is satiated?), is not entirely without interest. If you are in the mood for what would have to be considered a light drama--something that will engage your interest and unspin/resolve its dramatic conflicts without penetrating too deeply into your consciousness or lingering too long after it's over--you could probably do a lot worse than Winter in Wartime, which, while it will not require you to use your intelligence very strenuously, never goes so far as to actually insult it.
Its actual content--including visual elements like editing and framing--may not be anything you have not seen many times before in other reliably, professionally executed films, but Winter in Wartime does boast some very nice cinematography, and the 1080p high-def transfer, preserving the film's fitting 2.35:1 widescreen aspect ratio, perfectly delivers the bright, snowy landscapes and shiny period interiors, with zero defects or flaws.
The film's top-notch, state-of-the-art Dolby sound is perfectly captured and conveyed by the disc's High-Definition Master Audio soundtrack. At this as at its other technical levels, the film is fairly impeccable, and the many layers of sound are impressive and rendered as such here for your home viewing pleasure.
The extra features are fairly standard promotional materials. The Making of Winter in Wartime making-of, at 20 minutes, is very run-of-the-mill featurette stuff; the interviews with the actors and filmmakers are less revealing than might be desired, though the behind the scenes footage, particularly that depicting the film's main stunt, definitely holds some interest for those who enjoy seeing how films are made. There is also the Winter in Wartime trailer alongside a handful of other previews for Sony Pictures Classics films, which serves as an unfortunate and surely unintentional reminder that Of Gods and Men is sublime in a way that would never occur to the creators of Winter in Wartime. As with most Sony Classics releases at present (during the transition phase from DVD to blu-ray), the DVD version is generously included alongside the blu-ray.
Playing more like a very straightforward adventure film for kids than the serious drama it strives to have the aura of, Winter in Wartime is a diverting, technically proficient, but ultimately rather uninspired, forgettable experience that has all its ducks so tidily in a row, and hits those targets so easily, that it neglects to aim for anything more interesting, unique, or profound. It is not a terrible way to pass the time, but as a World War II film from The Netherlands, this one is as surprisingly superficial and innocuous as Paul Verhoeven's Black Book was unexpectedly deep and disturbing. If you do happen to have some mild curiosity about it, or if you are just in the mood for a movie that neither demands nor offers enough to do much more than pass some pleasant-enough time, Renting It should scratch that itch with no harm done.