Martin Koolhoven finds the perfect blend of classical cinema and arthouse sensitivities in WWII coming-of-ager "Winter in Wartime."

Dutch helmer Martin Koolhoven finds the perfect blend of classical cinema and arthouse sensitivities in WWII coming-of-ager “Winter in Wartime.” Adaptation of a popular youth novel portrays a 14-year-old lad’s brutal loss of innocence during the winter of 1944-45, when circumstances force him to become a one-man resistance movement. More about a teen than made for teens, pic has been a huge hit in the Low Countries since its pre-Christmas release and could be Koolhoven’s springboard to international fame.

Koolhoven is known as an actors’ director with a knack for unearthing new talent: Carice van Houten (“Black Book,” “Valkyrie”) had her first major roles in his 1999 telepic “Suzy Q” and his 2001 feature “AmnesiA.” Here, he not only impresses with his work with 15-year-old newcomer Martijn Lakemeier but also shows an impressive command of the cinematic tools needed to turn a largely internal story into a gripping, at times epic blockbuster.

Pic opens with a bang as Michiel (Lakemeier) spies a British plane going down in flames from his bedroom window. Later that day, the slightly older Dirk (Mees Peijnenburg) asks Michiel to deliver a letter to the village blacksmith in case Dirk doesn’t come back by morning.

After the blacksmith is murdered by the Germans, Michiel opens the letter and subsequently discovers a now-crippled RAF pilot, Jack (Jamie Campbell Bower, “Sweeney Todd”), hiding out in the woods. Unsure who he can trust, and disgusted by the compliance of his mayor father (Raymond Thiry), Michiel decides to help the young pilot on his own.

Subtle screenplay remodels the 1972 novel — and a miniseries it inspired — but stays true to its essence, finding the right balance between a boy’s dream adventure and the sobering realities of war. P.o.v. always stays close to Michiel, which means auds will often understand more than he does (why his father would be polite to the Germans to avoid rousing suspicion is beyond him).

Despite the period setting unobtrusively evoked by production designer Floris Vos, the story has a very modern feel reinforced by the lensing and editing: Guido van Gennep’s widescreen winter vistas, filmed in Lithuania, seamlessly alternate with jiggly handheld shots to give an idea of time and place, as well as urgency and danger.

A moving setpiece involving Michiel’s father relies on old-school slow-motion and Pino Donaggio’s swelling score, but still delivers. A sequence involving a horse-carriage chase is less successful.

The film is largely Lakemeier’s show, but Anneke Blok, as the boy’s mother, has one especially powerful moment when she begs to see her imprisoned husband. While Michiel is generally at odds with his stern father, the actors do get one scene that speaks volumes about their mutual affection. Other thesps, including Yorick van Wageningen (“The New World”) as Michiel’s uncle, are reliable.

As in “Black Book,” which “Winter” approaches on a cinematic level, scenes set during the Liberation forcefully drive home the point that the war may be over, but there’s no going back to how things were earlier.

Winter in Wartime

Netherlands

Production

A Benelux Film Distributors release of an Isabella Films, Fu Works production, in association with Prime Time, Omroep Max. (International sales: High Point Films, London.) Produced by San Fu Maltha, Els Vandevorst. Co-producer, Antonino Lombardo. Directed by Martin Koolhoven. Screenplay, Paul Jan Nelissen, Mieke de Jong, Koolhoven, based on the novel by Jan Terlouw.

Crew

Camera (color, widescreen), Guido van Gennep; editor, Job ter Burg; music, Pino Donaggio; production designer, Floris Vos; costume designer, Alette Kraan; sound (Dolby Digital), Herman Pieete; special effects, Darius Cicenas; assistant director, Wouter Severijn; casting, Rebecca van Unen. Reviewed at Pathe De Kuip, Rotterdam, Jan. 26, 2009. Running time: 103 MIN.

With

Martijn Lakemeier, Yorick van Wageningen, Jamie Campbell Bower, Raymond Thiry, Melody Klaver, Anneke Blok, Mees Peijnenburg, Tygo Gernandt. (Dutch, English, German dialogue)

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