There are no easy rewards for the protagonist — or indeed, the viewer — of “It’s All So Quiet,” the austere but subtly powerful fifth feature of Dutch auteur Nanouk Leopold (“Wolfsbergen,” “Brownian Movement”). More inspired by than literally adapted from Gerbrand Bakker’s bestseller, “The Twin,” the pic charts the much-belated coming-of-age of a fiftysomething, closed-mouthed farmer who decides to move his ailing, once-domineering father upstairs so he can finally come into his own down below. Hushed, superbly acted character study makes the silences count but nonetheless has a shot at niche theatrical exposure, especially in Euro and gay-friendly arthouses.
One of “Quiet’s” first shots is an immediate winner, combining everyday action and more symbolic meanings in a typically Leopoldesque way. Helmer (the late Jeroen Willems), a fit dairy-cattle farmer of about 55, carries his ill but still-stout father (Henri Garcin) up a flight of stairs to the attic, as seen from the landing below; the suggestive visual of one hulking adult body struggling to support another establishes how the father has become the son’s cross to bear.
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Leopold’s ease with storytelling through sound (or lack thereof) and imagery is the main reason the film remains so involving. For a picture based on a literary work, even one of such Calvinist restraint as Bakker’s, there’s very little dialogue. It’s not even clear, for example, that Helmer’s sibling, who drowned before the film opens, is his twin brother, as the English-language title of the novel suggests. The book’s one major female role has been greatly reduced as well — surprisingly, as the director’s previous pics were mainly femme-focused.
What remains is a trio of men, all of few words, who define the limits of Helmer’s world: the father who’s slowly “dying of old age”; the kind, Belgian milk-truck driver (Wim Opbrouck) who is Helmer’s age and regularly comes to collect the farm’s milk; and a hunky young farmhand, Henk (Martijn Lakemeier), who turns up out of nowhere (unlike in the novel). The truck driver and the farmhand stir feelings of affection and desire, respectively, but the towering, if slowly withering, presence of his father upstairs makes it impossible for Helmer to act on his feelings.
The character development here is understated but beautifully laid bare by a quartet of top actors. Willems, a Dutch theater vet who died suddenly last December, gives a devastating performance as Helmer, who might think his true feelings are concealed by the eternally downward-pointing corners of his mouth, but who’s nonetheless easily readable for auds throughout. As his father, Belgian thesp Garcin (perhaps most famous for his role as Fanny Ardent’s cuckolded husband in Truffaut’s “The Woman Next Door”) provides the necessary gravitas and, despite his total dependence on his offspring for care, the sort of calculated indifference that would make a son hurt inside.
Flemish actor Opbrouck (“Can Go Through Skin”) and rising Dutch star Lakemeier (“Winter in Wartime”) are perfectly cast, even though Lakemeier’s role seems to have suffered the most from Leopold’s severe pruning of the original text, making the young man’s actions necessary, story-wise, but not always clearly motivated.
Departing from the novel’s Waterland backdrop, just northeast of Amsterdam, the film is set in rural Zeeland, near the Belgian border, and Leopold uses the open surrounding fields as a nice counterweight to the farm’s dark, closed-off interiors without driving home the parallels too forcefully. Her first film shot with digital cameras feels looser in approach but no less composed, while the minimalist sound design amplifies surface silences as well as underlying tensions.