There is very little good to say about Nova Zembla. Apart perhaps that it is a good thing they tried to do this in the first place. Historical films aren’t a prolific genre in Dutch cinema (apart from WW2 films), despite a history that has plenty of decent adventure stories in stock: the revolution against the Spanish Empire, the ensuing Eighty Years’ War, the seafaring…
The latter is the subject of Reinout Oerlemans’ Nova Zembla, the first Dutch feature film in 3D. The former soap actor turned film producer and director used the true story of Willem Barentsz’ search for a northern route to the Indies for his second film (after 2009’s Komt een Vrouw bij de Dokter). Barentsz efforts failed when his ship got stuck in the ice north of Siberia, and he and his crew had to spend a long dark winter on theisland ofNova Zembla, battling the cold, the hunger and polar bears.
It is a really, really good story. But Oerlemans screws it up. He is not helped by a clunky screenplay written by Hugo Heijnen. There is a headache inducing voice-over by Jan Decleir, which over explains everything. Most of the crew don’t have any character and could simply have been named scruffy-man-with-beard-number-5. The motivational speeches by Barentsz (Derek de Lint) fall flat: crucially, it never becomes clear what motivates these brave men to go on such a dangerous adventure, other than money. The plot ponders on, presenting the journey as a series of incidents that do not really belong together. And when the winter on Nova Zembla – the big event of the movie – finally starts, I’ve already given up on the film.
By the way, there are moments in this trailer that are not in the film, and the tagline is generic nonsense (“the fate of many will be in the hands of a few”)
Granted, the protagonist is a clever device: writer Gerrit de Veer (who actually existed) wants to marry a minister’s daughter (Doutzen Kroes in her film debut), but has no money. He therefore joins Barentsz’ expedition, with the plan of writing a bestseller about it. A novice to the sea, Gerrit’s character could easily have been used to teach the audience some lessons about 16th century sailoring. But Gerrit spends most of his time taking notes for Barentsz and his captain, Jacob van Heemskerck (Victor Reinier) or being bullied by the crew.
Robert de Hoog – later this year to appear in Spielberg’s War Horse – is not doing a bad job as Gerrit. And Decleir and De Lint are good actors as well. But they struggle with their lines: Heijnen has not decided on settling for modern Dutch or a more old-fashioned variation. Therefore nothing sounds real and sincere. Things do look real. The producer Oerlemans succeeded in providing the director Oerlemans with a considerable budget to restage 16th centuryAmsterdam and build a proper ship.
But those looks are ruined by a very shoddy use of 3D. Foregrounds and backgrounds seem to exist in different universes, anatomical proportions are all off, and most important: a long part of the film takes place during the darkness of the polar winter. And one thing 3D does is already making the image darker! The polar bear attack would have been far more impressive had I actually been able to see it! The only thing that really works in 3D is the, by the way completely ridiculous, image of Doutzen Kroes in a church on a swing, swinging towards the audience with her hand stretched out and an impressively low neckline.
I am afraid that is the only thing I am actually going to remember from Nova Zembla.