Dutch-Frisian director Steven de Jong tackles his native province’s biggest claim to fame in the technically impressive “The Hell of ’63.” The thesp-turned-helmer gives an accessible big-race treatment to the arduous 1963 edition of the world’s longest skating marathon on natural ice — when extremely harsh weather resulted in only 1% crossing the finishing line. However, awkward shifts in tone make the journey far from smooth; the heavily promoted pic opened somewhat disappointingly Dec. 17. Still, Euro fests accepting of foreign-lingo crowdpleasers could still sign up.
The Elfstedentocht is a tour-skating race on the canals and lakes that connect 11 towns in the Netherlands’ northern Friesland province, where locals speak Frisian, a language more closely related to English than Dutch. The race is one of the biggest sports phenoms in the Low Countries, and doesn’t take place every year, as winters there are generally mild.
For the 1963 edition, the first in seven years, the weather was dangerously cold, with temperatures hovering around zero, with frequent blizzards. However, with Elfstedentocht Fever engulfing the nation, thousands of willing participants, the first-ever live TV coverage and a planned royal visit, the organizing committee couldn’t call the event off.
De Jong’s movie recreates both the popular elation and the organizational chaos with verve. But it has less success with its central characters.
Annemiek (Chava voor in ‘t Holt) is a nurse who lost her skating-crazy b.f. (Tim Douwsma) on the ice and is determined to finish the tour for him. During the race, she’s joined by Henk (Cas Jansen), a soldier who deserts the army for the duration of the marathon; ne’er-do-well laborer Kees (Chris Zegers), whose pregnant wife (Chantal Janzen) has given up on him; and tenacious farmer’s son Sjoerd (Lourens van den Akker), who’s 17, and hopes to prove to his stern family he’s worthy of his own farm.
Screenplay, by helmer Maarten Lebens and the late Jean Ummels, has only rudimentary character motivations and a linear narrative without surprises. Still, voor in ‘t Holt and van den Akker, the latter acting mainly in Frisian, manage to give their characters some credible dramatic heft. Their emotional bond, with an overlay of hesitant puppy love, is also the strongest.
The large cast of supporting players tends to slide into cliches, with a rotund news reporter (Dirk Zeelenberg) who hounds the organizing committee far-too-broadly sketched.
Special effects, dizzying camera movements and location work in Friesland and Finland all convincingly create a wintry hell-hole.