"Everybody has certain talents. Each of us has to discover them and develop them so as to make progress. And I'm sure each of us will make that progress no matter where he's from. As long as he focuses on one single goal and is willing to sacrifice everything else. He'll overcome all setbacks and resistance, as long as that one goal prevails and he won't be distracted and will put everything else aside. That is my true conviction."—Jacob Katadreuffe
Winner of the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language film in 1998, Character is writer/director Mike van Diem's adaptation of Ferdinand Bordewijk's influential novel set in Rotterdam in the 1920s.
Facts of the Case
As Character opens, Jacob Katadreuffe (Fedja van Huêt) is taken into custody and questioned by the police regarding his relationship to a murder victim, a cruel court bailiff named Dreverhaven (Jan Decleir). Jacob, it turns out, is Dreverhaven's illegitimate son.
We learn in flashback that Jacob was raised by his staid mother (and Dreverhaven's former maid), a woman for whom he feels little connection, and has spent his life locked in a battle of wills with his father. He works a menial job in a law firm and uses all of his wiles to grind out an education so he can become a lawyer himself, transcending his class and, most importantly, eclipsing his father. Dreverhaven seemingly hinders him at every turn, undermining his successes out of spite, trying to break his will and ruin him financially. Jacob becomes more and more willing to sacrifice anything—romantic love, family—that hinders his quest to defeat his father.
As Jacob's deposition proceeds, the nature of the relationship between father and son is revealed, as are the cause of Dreverhaven's death, and his true motives for interfering in his son's affairs.
Dig up an English-language review of Character and you'll almost invariably find the term "Dickensian" in there somewhere. The DVD cover art, as a matter of fact, quotes Kevin Thomas from The Los Angeles Times stating the film has "a Dickensian sense of passion and obsessiveness." But calling the film Dickensian is an awkward and broad-brush analysis, a shorthand that applies only to its surfaces. Yes, it's concerned with the entwined lives of a handful of characters and Katadreuffe is the sort of struggling middle-class clerk with whom Dickens would be fascinated, but Bordewijk's sensibilities are too modern to be summed up so simply.
The struggle between Katadreuffe and Dreverhaven is Freudian, an almost textbook Oedipal conflict, which is to say it's distinctly twentieth-century in tone and sensibility. Katadreuffe's resentment of his father and alienation from his mother is rooted in his sameness to Dreverhaven, his need to establish his own male power and influence in opposition to, and perhaps at the expense of his father's. The two share a character that is disparate from Katadreuffe's mother's, and puts them in conflict with her and with each other, and this dual isolation from her, in turn, shapes them both. As characters, we can only fully understand father and son by viewing them in context with one another; they're joined inextricably by their nature; the behavior of each is motive for the other. Katadreuffe is a complex blend of nature and nurture, stamped with Dreverhaven's basic character, but shaped differently because of the world and class in which he matures, his life choices consequently limited by who he is. The result of all this is a profound fatalism that works beautifully because we're told at the outset that Dreverhaven is dead, a victim of murder, and the rest of the movie carries us through the inevitable sequence of events that lead to that death.
The narrative draws us in, then, not by making us wonder where it's going, but how it's going to arrive at the conclusion to which we're already privy (this, too, is a typically modern approach). Its path, which includes a series of surprises along the way, is a genuine good time. The film does feel Dickensian in that it doesn't need to be parsed intellectually; it can be enjoyed simply as a good yarn, a rich and intricate, beautifully composed murder mystery and character study wrapped in a richly detailed setting. It plays no Rashomon-style games of perception by reminding the audience of the subjectivity of their own knowledge. Like Katadreuffe and the police, we come to know the truth of the events, but this in no way simplifies the story's themes or emotional impact.
Character is a period piece, and Mike van Diem does a wonderful job recreating 1920s Rotterdam: the cobblestone streets and rustic storefronts and period costumes. The politics and economics of the time are essential to the narrative, but are delicately and expertly handled so even casual viewers with little understanding of Europe of the '20s will have no problem following the story. In fact, the struggle between father and son is so primal, and the characters so modern, one tends to forget it's a period piece at all. The world of the narrative is beautifully filmed with richly-framed but simple compositions and appropriate camera movement that leave cinematographer Rogier Stoffers' (Quills) work transparent to the viewer. The DVD does justice to his art. The 1.78:1 anamorphic transfer shows no signs of edge enhancement or digital artifacts. Blacks are solid, and colors are natural, which fits perfectly with the film's aesthetic and was clearly the intent of Stoffer and van Diem. The print from which the transfer was struck isn't perfect, but its flaws are minor. Considering the haloing problems with Columbia TriStar's release of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (also a part of their Sony Pictures Classics line of foreign films), Character's transfer is a very pleasant surprise.
The Dolby Digital 5.1 surround mix of the film's original Dutch soundtrack is characterized by a surprisingly nice use of the entire soundstage (effects like thunder ripple back into the rear speakers and make decent use of the subwoofer). The track is spacious and free of hiss.
My only complaint about the disc is that the only subtitles available are English, and they're burned in. It's not that big a deal, personally, since I don't speak Dutch and would never have reason to watch the film unsubtitled, but it still bugs me on principle.
The technical stuff out of the way, I should also mention that the performances in this film are uniformly strong. Fedja van Huêt is particularly good as Jacob Katadreuffe, meeting the challenge of expressing a passion contained by propriety and personal ambition; he uses his eyes in an almost Chaplinesque way to capture the character's naïveté. Jan Decleir, as Dreverhaven, gives another subtle performance, both despicable and pitiable. It's a character that could easily veer too far in one direction or the other, but Decleir shows great control, exhibiting an ever-present vulnerability buried beneath a hard and cold demeanor.
Character is a smart and intricate film, beautifully constructed, peopled with round and human characters whose problems and motives are engaging. Most importantly, though, it's entertaining, grabbing you in its opening moments and sweeping you up into its story.
All defendants are found not guilty. Court is in recess.
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