Actor Jeroen Krabbe’s first effort as director is a well intentioned but uneven and overly sentimental film about a young, liberated Jewish woman who finds herself drawn to members of an orthodox Hassidic family in Antwerp in 1972. Centering on a strident central performance from miscast British thesp Laura Fraser, pic is undeniably thoughtful and serious, yet at the same time surprisingly contrived and unconvincing in crucial details. Despite a strong, though barely integrated, cast of players, film is likely to perform only modestly in most territories.
The insurmountable hurdle Krabbe faces here is the fact that, while the film deals very specifically with the traditions and rigorously conservative ways of Hassidic Jewry, the apparent demands of an English-language Euro co-production have ensured that the actors, who hail from various countries and speak with a variety of accents, hardly convince as citizens of Antwerp except on the most artificial level. This won’t matter in territories where films are dubbed anyway, but for English-language auds it requires an enormous leap of faith to accept Fraser, with her very British accent and attitude, as the daughter of Maximilian Schell and Marianne Sagebrecht.
Fraser plays Chaja, a free spirited 20-year-old student who shares an apartment with a like-minded girl (Heather Weeks) and whose latest lover is a long haired revolutionary. She occasionally visits her parents, who are both concentration camp survivors. Her mother is into denial, and spends her time weaving blankets and baking cakes, while her father is obsessed with locating two suitcases of family treasures he buried in the garden of a house in the city before being transported by the Germans. Actually, his quest for these missing treasures provides the film with some of its best scenes, thanks to Schell’s convincingly touching portrayal.
Needing cash to avoid eviction from her apartment, Chaja — with the help of an old family friend (Chaim Topol) — seeks employment as a nanny in the home of a strict Hassidic family, even though she at first treats these orthodox Jews with something close to contempt. Not one to live by the rules of any society, she vigorously rejects the very rigid lifestyle of the Kalmans (Jeroen Krabbe, Isabella Rossellini), who have five children.
In the circumstances, it’s stretching credulity that someone as “modern” as Chaja wouldn’t be able to find work in a less rigid environment, and also that the Kalmans would allow someone who derides their traditions to care for their younger offspring.
In any event, Chaja is soon smitten by 4-year-old Simcha (Adam Monty), who refuses to talk, apparently because his stern father has terrified him into silence (he also urinates in his pants whenever his dad’s around.) Chaja takes the boy in hand and soon has him not only talking but learning the doctrine required by his father.
In adapting a 1993 novel by Carl Friedman, Krabbe and screenwriter Edwin de Vries have forthrightly depicted the lingering scourge of anti-Semitism, both open (neo Nazis daub swastikas in the park where the Hassidic Jews congregate) and more subtle (Chaja’s roommate never knew she was Jewish, and is obviously taken aback when she discovers the news). The anti-Semitism theme is, unfortunately, crystallized in the wildly unconvincing character of the concierge (David Bradley), who administers the building where the Kalmans live. The actions of this bad tempered bigot are, as written and acted, barely credible.
Pic pulls out all the emotional stops for a tragic climax and a conclusion of all around bonding, but it remains a strangely remote experience. This is partly because of the casting concessions already noted, plus the fact that some actors are more successful than others in finding their characters. Rossellini is very fine as the compliant Mrs. Kalman, while director Krabbe is also impressive as her unbending husband.
But the relatively inexperienced Fraser, who is asked to carry the film, seems uncomfortable in her demanding role. Production values are solid, though Henny Vrienten’s saccharine music score is overly repetitive.