Absorbing 'Character' full of mystery

May 15, 1998|By Ann Hornaday | Ann Hornaday,SUN FILM CRITIC

"Character," a 1920s-era psychological drama, is made with such assurance and bravura that it looks like the work of a seasoned pro, rather than a director making his feature debut.

Adapted from a popular 1938 Dutch novel, Mike van Diem's film tells a simple story that is given depth and texture by his rich visual style, an effective use of flashbacks and a cast full of distinctive and memorable faces.

"Character" recalls the narratives of Dickens, the mood of Kafka and the visual imagery of Fritz Lang and Rene Magritte, but even VTC with all those artists hovering about him, van Diem has created a vision all his own.

"Character," which won the 1997 Oscar for best foreign film, begins on a mysterious note: A young man named Katadreuffe rushes from a Rotterdam street to a garret-like office, where an older gentleman called Dreverhaven sits impassively behind a desk. As Katadreuffe gains momentum so does the camera, until both rush headlong to Dreverhaven's desk, into which Katadreuffe drives a knife.

He informs Dreverhaven that he has just passed the bar. The encounter ends in an impulsive act of violence that will result with one of the men being arrested. The next two hours will be spent excavating what these two people meant to one another, and how they ended up where they are.

In addition to his intuitive camera work and gift for color -- most of "Character" is filmed in subdued hues of blue and gray with the occasional burst of crimson -- van Diem clearly has a gift for casting. As Katadreuffe, Fedja van Huet combines the protean look of Robert Downey Jr. and the facial expressiveness of a young Peter Lorre. Betty Schuurman, as his stoic, emotionally reserved mother, epitomizes Low Country reserve.

Katadreuffe's struggle to break free of his mother, come to terms with her past and make his own way in the world defines the narrative center of "Character." But its physical core is the cryptic presence of Jan Decleir as Dreverhaven, the city bailiff who casts a mountain-sized shadow on Katadreuffe's life.

Not so much reserved as emotionally impacted, Dreverhaven expresses himself through his actions, as well as his hulking, almost sculptural presence. His mouth screwed into a curlicue of distaste, his hair plastered over to one side in the Rotterdam rain, Dreverhaven only has to raise an arm in a casual wave to anticipate the events in Europe 10 years later.

Decleir and van Huet's eloquent performances, as well as van Diem's lively and intelligible direction, make "Character" an absorbing, highly watchable return to the screen of those unfashionable but enduring elements of the cinema: good stories and interesting people.

'Character'

Starring Fedja van Huet, Jan Decleir and Betty Schuurman

Directed by Mike van Diem

Rated R (language)

Released by Sony Pictures Classics

Sun Score *** 1/2

Pub Date: 5/15/98

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