It’s one thing to be imprisoned for a crime you didn’t commit, but in the unique case of unlucky pediatric nurse Lucia de Berk, the woman was labeled a serial killer by the media and locked away for a series of suspicious deaths that, upon closer inspection, probably weren’t crimes at all. The shortlisted Dutch entry in this year’s ultra-competitive Oscar foreign-language race, “Accused” is by far the category’s most conventional — and by extension, its most commercial — contender, a taut procedural that boasts solid Hollywood remake potential in its streamlined retelling of de Berk’s incredible and unnerving true story.
“Accused” marks the second time director Paula van der Oest has been selected to represent the Netherlands at the Academy Awards, following her incomparably upbeat 2001 romantic comedy, “Zus & Zo,” which went on to earn an Oscar nomination. In both cases, apart from the language difference, the films hardly feel foreign at all, playing out like well-made American studio fare, albeit ones made on dramatically tighter budgets.
This time, the resulting project sits squarely between the psychological thriller and courtroom drama genres, exploring the mystery of what must have been going through de Berk’s mind against a backdrop of zealous prosecutors and callous hospital executives who manipulated her fate for their own personal gain. With the benefit of hindsight, Moniek Kramer and Tijs van Marle’s screenplay is free to suggest that de Berk was a victim of the system — a credible scapegoat at a moment when hospital management didn’t want to take accountability for the death of one of its infant patients. But it lets the other players off easy (especially the media, who dubbed her the “Angel of Death”) in what played out akin to a modern-day witch trial, where “profiling” becomes a fancy new word for guilty by suspicion.
For dramatic purposes, van der Oest holds de Berk at arm’s length for much of the film, inviting audiences to prejudge her, too, at first. As played by Ariane Schluter (whose non-glam appearance matches the real de Berk), she is simultaneously cold and concerned, showing extra care for the critical-case infants to whom she attends, but an austere and somewhat unfriendly attitude toward the other hospital staff. When a baby dies as a result of doctor negligence, de Berk’s colleagues are the first to turn suspicion toward her, their hunches reinforced by the startling number of patients who have died under de Berk’s watch.
If de Berk is indeed killing them (whether out of empathy or malice), no one can figure out either her method or her motives. But that doesn’t stop an overeager law-school graduate named Judith Jansen (Sallie Harmsen), desperate to prove herself as an assistant prosecutor, from building an elaborate case against the nurse. In her righteous pursuit of personal glory, Judith extrapolates wild theories from the limited clues — including de Berk’s diary, which references a strange secret compulsion; the stash of overdue library books about serial killers recovered at her apartment; and the woman’s sketchy past, including work as a child prostitute — while ignoring the blatant contradictions.
Jansen is the filmmakers’ invention, but a clever one, providing a narrative arc: What began as a case to put de Berk behind bars shifts as doubt arises, and Jansen realizes that she has set in motion a process whose momentum is potentially too late to reverse. After building a compelling if largely circumstantial case labeling de Berk a serial killer, Jansen comes to believe the alleged victims may actually have died of natural causes, meaning not only that they have the wrong suspect, but that there may not have been any murders to begin with.
Audiences should be wary from extrapolating too much from the facts presented in “Accused,” given the sheer degree of creative license taken in the retelling, and yet the underlying implications are downright chilling — potentially even more so if the broad strokes were transposed to the American jury system. All these intrigues are lensed in the dark, cloak-and-dagger look we’ve come to associate with David Fincher movies. Also noteworthy is the fact that the pic’s main characters are nearly all female, as van der Oest does her part to right the gender imbalance of which so many other directors are rightly accused.