Based on Ferdinand Bordewijk's classic 1938 novel of the same name, "Character," the 1997 Oscar winner for Best Foreign Language Film, is an interesting and decidedly offbeat film that bears a striking resemblance to the central plot element of the "Star Wars" trilogy. Now, before you go and think that I've finally lost it by comparing a moody, art house piece set in 1920's Rotterdam to a series of extremely popular sci-fi films set in another galaxy, take a closer look at the familial structure of both films.
In each, the main character is essentially motherless (Luke's is dead while Katadreuffe's is so emotionally distant she might as well be gone). Both characters are surprised to find that their fathers -- previously unknown to them -- are ruthless, despicable men responsible for the suffering of many people under their control. Finally, the main characters, although young and naive, set out to succeed despite their fathers' attempts to squash such efforts. Their actions eventually lead to their fathers' deaths at which point they learn there was more to them than initially met the eye.
Of course, all of that exists on a thematic level that many viewers might not even notice, especially considering the foreboding atmosphere that permeates most of "Character's" two hour length. First-time director Mike van Diem and cinematographer Rogier Stoffers have created a shadowy concoction reminiscent of those classic black and white horror films from the 1920's and the later works of cinema visionary, Terry Gilliam ("Brazil").
Playing as much of a character as the human performers, the shadow laden photography perfectly symbolizes Katadreuffe's dark and mysterious relationship with his father. It's only when the main character pursues his romance with a fellow coworker that the film finally opens up into a light and airy world. If not for those respite moments, the film would be too suffocating and one would also begin to suspect that the people of Rotterdam had an aversion to windows and/or that the sun never shines there.
The roles the performers inhabit are just as mysterious as whatever might be lurking in the foreboding shadows, but what an interesting and certainly differentiated bunch of characters they play. Although they're never fully explored and don't change to any great extent (except for Katadreuffe and that's mainly due to aging), these characters are a fascinating lot.
Fedja Van Huet -- who looks so similar to Robert Downey, Jr. that he might as well be his long lost twin brother -- is good in his role as the son desperate to break free from his father. Although his similarities to that more famous actor may impede a possible career in Hollywood, Van Huet's film debut is indeed quite impressive.
More interesting, though, are the supporting characters and Jan Decleir is outstanding as the "evil" father. Although seemingly a one-note character, Decleir gives him enough subtle nuances to make the character come alive and stand out from the rest. Victor Low, who plays Katadreuffe's mentor, likewise gives his character enough interesting qualities to make him distinctive, and Betty Schuurman delivers an adequate performance for being stuck in the role of the stoic and emotionally distant mother.
While some may not find that the foreboding and mysterious atmosphere -- surrounding both the set and the characters -- to their liking, art house fans will probably enjoy the film. And if you can manage to convince your teenagers to have an open mind and think of the similarities to "Star Wars" (I know, I can see the blank "you've got to be kidding" look right now), you may just get them to watch this Oscar winning film. While not perfect and certainly not for everyone's tastes, this picture is unlike most films you'll see this year. We give "Character" a 7 out of 10.