Young Czech helmer Jan Sverak’s distinctive gift, shown in “Kolya,” for juggling Bohemian charm with deep-rooted emotion succeeds on the much larger stage of “Dark Blue World,” thanks to another well-textured script by his father, Zdenek Sverak, and performances which play to the front row rather than the gallery. An intimate dramedy of two Czech pilots in Britain’s Royal Air Force who fall for the same woman during WWII, pic is full of engaging characters and big-heartedness beneath the aerial dogfights and more serious message of what Communism later did to these heroes. Strikingly shot in widescreen, this quality mainstream entertainment lacks the simplicity and cuteness that made the Academy Award-winning “Kolya” such an international success, but with the right positioning and marketing could fly reasonably high beyond home turf, especially in Europe. Pic opened in Prague May 16 and is being touted for a North American preem at the Toronto fest this fall.
From “Wings” to “The Right Stuff,” the Deep Blue Yonder has provided a favorite arena in the movies for characters to work out their terrestrial conflicts and personal aspirations. “Dark Blue World” takes the idea one step further by framing the wartime drama as a series of memory flashbacks from the dark, early days of Czech communism in 1950. As Lt. Franta Slama (Ondrej Vetchy) recuperates in the grim hospital of Mirov Prison, packed with political prisoners, he recalls the heady, final days of freedom just prior to the German invasion of Czechoslovakia in ’39.
Franta was then a carefree flyer at Olomouc Airfield, with a young rookie pilot, Karel (Krystof Hadek), assigned to his care. On the day German troops march into the country, Franta is more interested in getting it on with a cute blonde who’s promised to the local stationmaster.
When German troops commandeer the airfield, Franta quietly knuckles down to working under his new overlords, but soon he and Karel set about escaping to freedom. Pic rapidly switches to a rural training center in England, 1940, where the duo and other Czechs stumble through language lessons, partake in strategy exercises on bicycles equipped with wings, and generally hang out together as they await the call to action. Among their group are a piano-playing lothario, Machaty (Oldrich Kaiser), a gross Moravian, Sysel, and a kid with a perpetual stammer.
Played in a naturalistic manner by the main cast, with dialogue realistically sliding between Czech and English, these scenes establish an easy friendship born of a common background that’s been uprooted and planted in a foreign land. The elder Sverak’s strong script is very even-handed here, with the Czechs as well as the Brits coming in for good-natured ribbing.
A half-hour into the pic, the action gets under way, with a dogfight vs. some German planes that leads to an immediate casualty in the group. (Pic isn’t soft-centered in suddenly dispatching its characters.) In tandem with Ondrej Soukup’s broad, aspirational score, these aerial sequences pack as big a punch as anything in larger-budgeted productions. Helmer never allows the f/x to take precedence over the personalities involved — even finding time for shafts of humor between the drama — and, more than in any other movie, conveys the visceral feel of being peppered with gunfire while cooped up in a claustrophobic cockpit.
After such lengthy preparation, the human conflict clicks into gear when Karel, shot down over England, stumbles onto the rural home of Susan (Tara Fitzgerald), wife of an absent sailor. Their brief encounter, and her much longer one with the older Franta, tests the friendship between the lovestruck kid and his superior officer, as the pair’s fates become entwined in later missions.
Sverak’s sheer technical finesse, and ability to spin on a dime between comedy and tragedy, the personal and the historical, makes “Deep Blue World” succeed where other similarly themed movies, from “Battle of Britain” to “The Blue Max,” seem heavy-handed by comparison. Although the script further ups the stakes by moving backwards and forwards between the ’50s and ’40s, the movie has a seamless emotional line that doesn’t make the time shifts annoying.
Taking a typically Czech approach in which all characters are shown to be complicit in each other’s fates, and made up of equal parts good and bad, even supporting roles — such as a former Nazi doctor (Hans-Jorg Assmann) in the Czech prison — emerge as damaged but essentially sympathetic goods. In a good example of the script’s pungent economy, the doc inspects one prisoner’s wounds after an interrogation and murmurs, “Nazis, Communists … the blows are the same.”
Pic’s neatly worked out final reels, which go for a prolonged shrug of the shoulders rather than physical confrontations, are extremely moving.
The heart and soul of the movie resides in the perf of the experienced Vetchy (the gravedigger in “Kolya”), whose easygoing, twinkly-eyed charm avoids any one-dimensional macho posturing. In a relatively small role, Fitzgerald radiates a mature, no-nonsense presence as the lonesome wife, meshing easily with her Czech co-stars, and newcomer Hadek is restrained in the potentially sulky part of Karel. Among the strong supports, Kaiser shines as Machaty, a cynical, seen-it-all womanizer with a melancholic center.
Almost entirely shot in the Czech Republic, apart from some sea scenes done in South Africa and some pickup shots of the White Cliffs of Dover, the movie features a couple of rather un-English landscapes but is generally well fabricated, with a lived-in look to Jan Vlasak’s production design and Vera Mirova’s costumes. Though much is packed into the running time, there’s little sense of dramatic overcrowding, thanks to Sverak’s skill at transitions.
A final historical note says all the pilots were finally released from prison in ’51, but were only fully rehabilitated 40 years later.