Dark Blue World

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.

Lt. Franta Slama - Ondrej Vetchy Karel Vojtisek - Krystof Hadek Susan Whitmore - Tara Fitzgerald Machaty - Oldrich Kaiser Doctor - Hans - Jorg Assmann Wing Commander Bentley - Charles Dance English teacher - Anna Massey (Czech, English & German dialogue.)

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.

Dark Blue World

Czech Rep.-U.K.

Production: A Biograf Jan Sverak (Czech Rep.)/Portobello Pictures (U.K) production, in association with Helkon Media (Germany), Phoenix Film Investments, Fandango, Czech Television. (International sales: TF1 Intl., Boulogne, France.) Produced by Eric Abraham, Jan Sverak. Co-producers, Werner Koenig, Domenico Procacci. Directed by Jan Sverak. Screenplay, Zdenek Sverak.

Crew: Camera (color, widescreen), Vladimir Smutny; editor, Alois Fisarek; music, Ondrej Soukup; production designer, Jan Vlasak; art director, Vaclav Novak; costume designer, Vera Mirova; sound (Dolby Digital), Pavel Rejholec; sound designer, Zbynek Mikulik; second unit camera, Ramunas Greicius; special effects supervisor, Jaruslav Kolman; stunt co-ordinator, Ladislav Lahoda; associate producer, Ed Whitmore; assistant director, David Rauch. Reviewed at Cannes Film Festival (market), May 11, 2001. Running time: 115 MIN.

With: Lt. Franta Slama - Ondrej Vetchy Karel Vojtisek - Krystof Hadek Susan Whitmore - Tara Fitzgerald Machaty - Oldrich Kaiser Doctor - Hans - Jorg Assmann Wing Commander Bentley - Charles Dance English teacher - Anna Massey (Czech, English & German dialogue.)

More Film

  • Sylvester Stallone Variety Cover story

    Sylvester Stallone Feels Robbed of an Ownership Stake in 'Rocky': 'I Was Furious'

    Sylvester Stallone shares an uncanny, symbiotic connection with Rocky, the underdog boxer character he created four decades ago — a kindred spirit who served as his creative muse in spawning one of Hollywood’s most successful film franchises. In his long career Stallone also played another memorable screen role — John Rambo — but Rocky was [...]

  • Beware of Children

    First Trailer Released for Venice Days Entry 'Beware of Children' (EXCLUSIVE)

    Variety has been given exclusive access to the first trailer for Dag Johan Haugeruds’ politically and socially charged drama “Beware of Children,” which premieres as part of the Venice Film Festival’s Venice Days section. The pic, which is being sold at Venice by Picture Tree Intl., features the dramatic aftermath of a tragic incident in [...]

  • The Tower animated film about Palestinians

    ‘The Tower’ Animation Wins Japan's Skip City Festival

    “The Tower,” Mats Grorud’s animation about the plight of the Palestinians, as viewed through the eyes of an 11-year-old girl in Beirut, won the grand prize in the international competition at the 16th edition of Skip City International D-Cinema Festival. The film also scooped the section’s audience award. The Skip City festival, which launched in [...]

  • For web story

    Transgender Immigrant Pic 'Lingua Franca,' Thriller 'Only Beasts' to Bow at Venice Days

    New York-based Filipina filmmaker Isabel Sandoval’s “Lingua Franca,” about a transgender immigrant, is among 11 competition entries, all world premieres, that will launch from the Venice Film Festival’s independently run Venice Days section. The only U.S. entry set to compete in the section modeled on Cannes’ Directors’ Fortnight, “Lingua Franca” is Sandoval’s third work. It [...]

  • Female-Led and LGBTQ Narratives Win Big

    Female-Led and LGBTQ Narratives Win Big At Durban FilmMart Awards

    DURBAN–Female-driven narratives and daring portraits of queer culture around the continent were the big winners at this year’s Durban FilmMart (DFM), the industry program of the Durban Intl. Film Festival, which handed out awards at a ceremony Monday night at the Southern Sun Maharani Hotel. Among the prize-winners were the story of a Zimbabwean woman [...]

  • Oscar Nominations Reactions Phyllis Nagy

    Screenwriter Phyllis Nagy Runs for Writers Guild Presidency, Citing Agency Stalemate

    Oscar-nominated screenwriter Phyllis Nagy is challenging Writers Guild of America West’s incumbent president David Goodman, citing his handling of the bitter stalemate between the WGA and Hollywood agents. Nagy announced her candidacy online Monday night, a day before the deadline for filing. She made the announcement  in a private online group as part of Writers for [...]

  • Klaudia-Reynicke

    Locarno: Summerside Picks Up ‘Love Me Tender’ (EXCLUSIVE)

    Rome-based Summerside Intl. has acquired international sales rights to Klaudia Reynicke’s “Love Me Tender.” The second feature from Peru-born and Switzerland-based filmmaker will receive its world premiere at the Locarno Festival in its Filmmakers of the Present competition, which focuses on first and second features. Summerside Intl. is the world sales agent, excluding and Lichtenstein [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content