View the Second World War through a child's eyes and the result isn't hard to predict: a loss-of-innocence tale. Winter in Wartime is the boilerplate version, with the already dramatic facts of the era ramped up to melodramatic levels. Little wonder it rings so false. The truth was tough enough – no need to layer in all this embellishing fiction.
The setting is a small Dutch town in January of 1945, the period known in the Netherlands as "the Hunger Winter." Our innocent lad is 13-year old Michiel (Martijn Lakemeier), son of the local mayor and a spunky kid who looks askance at his father's "neutralist" position with the occupying Germans. Dad isn't a collaborator, but he is a pragmatist keen to ensure that his constituents "survive the war safe." Much more to Michiel's liking is his dashing uncle Ben, whose furtive shortwave radio hints at brave doings in the resistance.
Cue the appearance of the downed Allied pilot, a common trope in these yarns and not long in arriving here – in this case, an RAF flier named Jack (Jamie Campbell Bower) who's secreted away by members of the Dutch underground. When those protectors are captured, Michiel discovers the pilot's hideout and instantly warms to the heroic mission. The dangerous action is on, and so are the multiple complications – far too many to squeeze credibly into a single feature.
The source material is Jan Terlouw's novel, which the screenplay clearly struggles to truncate. Secondary characters pop up to scant purpose, even as the major plotlines seem rushed and underdeveloped. For example, consider the central issue of German reprisals for a killed soldier, where the mayor is among the prominent townsfolk rounded up and held to account. But director Martin Koolhoven introduces this major development almost casually, then tries to make amends with a mawkishly slow-motion shot of its climax, a trite piece of camerawork that robs the scene of any real emotion.
Matters aren't much better back on the downed-airman front. Since the pilot's leg is badly mangled, Michiel is obliged to turn for help to his older sister, the pretty nurse. She comes to the hideout, treats the wound, and darned if love doesn't blossom. Well, actually, it merely buds – given the congested plot, there ain't enough time or space for the full bloom. Anyway, there's still the teensy question of smuggling Jack across the river to a safe haven. Alas, the answer leads to a risible chase sequence that sees Nazis on motorcycles roaring after our heroes on a horse. Yep, a galloping nag – it's as if a western breaks out on the Western front.
And we've yet to reach the surprise twist at the end, which, trust me, saps what's left of his innocence right out of the plucky teen. No doubt, children grew up fast in Nazi-occupied Holland, and winter in wartime truly was hell. But Winter in Wartime is hell gussied up with rising action, a simple climax and a sweet denouement, all bundled into a narrative package that makes suffering look neat and horror tidy. It's damned near heavenly.
Winter in Wartime
- Directed by Martin Koolhoven
- Written by Paul Jan Nelissen, Mieke de Jong and Martin Koolhoven
- Starring Martijn Lakemeier and Jamie Campbell Bower
- Classification: 14A