A tour of duty in Afghanistan by both her husband and her brother leaves a Dutch wife with lots of unanswered questions in “Stella’s War.” Though the pic doesn’t have nearly enough narrative meat on its bones, helmer Diederik van Rooijen and luminous lead Maartje Remmers, both newcomers, almost make up for the screenplay’s awkward mix of psychological drama and whodunit. “War” did only modest biz on local release mid-February but does reveal two new talents from the Low Countries.
Pic is actually van Rooijen’s second movie, even though it’s being released commercially a month before his debut feature, “Bollywood Hero.” Both films reveal him as a gifted craftsman with a flair for melodrama: frequent musical cues and closeups, dramatic camera movements and a preference for emotion and effect over narrative fluidity.
Sporty blonde Stella (Remmers) is an average soldier’s wife, and mother to a small daughter (Keesje Rietvelt), in a sleepy town. When the pic opens, several of the village’s menfolk, including Stella’s husband, Jur (Javier Guzman), and brother, Twan (Teun Kuilboer), are sent off to war in Afghanistan.
After Twan dies in an apparent accident, Jur comes back for the funeral, along with several other comrades in arms. He’s still shellshocked from his experiences, but it’s clear early on that some DV tapes shot by the Dutch soldiers played a crucial role in the roadside accident that killed Twan.
The first 30 minutes alternate between Stella’s everyday struggles to cope and her attendance at some court hearings whose backstory is only explained about halfway through the pic. With so little revealed about the hearings, the cross-cutting doesn’t help build tension in the early stages.
Vet screenwriter Hugo Heinen (“Off Screen”) is to be commended for tackling a contemporary reality — the Afghan war — that’s so rarely seen in Dutch cinema. But the mystery/whodunit elements keep the viewer from getting to know Stella better. Despite Remmers’ magnetic presence, Stella remains something of an enigma, relentlessly pursuing the truth about the accident to the point where the pursuit itself supplants her psychological makeup. Only a single nocturnal scene between her and another soldier’s wife (Anna Drijver) hints at the cost of war for those who stay at home.
Van Rooijen’s clean realism thankfully keeps clear of visually aping Susanne Bier’s “Brothers,” which had a similar story setup. D.p. Lennert Hillege, who also shot “Bollywood Hero,” confirms his rep as someone who can do a lot with very little.
The whole look of the movie, sharply designed by Lieke Scholman, tells more about the agrarian village-turned-post-industrial wasteland than most of the characters that populate it. And van Rooijen and Remmers effectively make Stella stand out in the small soldiers’ community rife with secrets and tension.