Winter in Wartime, a compelling tale of heroism, brings a new energy to a wearied genre: a coming-of-age saga set against a backdrop of war. The Netherlands' official entry for best foreign language film at this year's Oscars, the film is a fine adaptation of Jan Terlouw's semi-autobiographical novel examining the absurdity of war and the sacrifice of courage.
Even though Winter in Wartime includes some violence, a hint of sex and pending doom, I would readily recommend this to a middle-schooler as an excellent alternative to the claptrap of superhero movies invading this summer's cineplexes.
The story is framed through the eyes of 13-year-old Michiel in 1945 Holland. While the Nazis' grip tightens on his Dutch village, Michiel and his mates see the war in absolutes: good guys vs. bad guys. But in time, innocence is lost and naivete yields to heartbreak. Michiel sees his father (Raymond Thiry), the town mayor, as an appeaser to the Nazis and his uncle (Yorick van Wageningen) as a heroic resister, but all is not as it appears.
Determining who or how to trust usually requires a lifetime of experience, but Michiel must find a way to marshal those skills sooner than later, and in so doing, he becomes the portrait of a young man of substance. The script is a slow reveal; it starts as a curiosity, builds to suspense and explodes with a thrilling climax.
Director Martin Koolhoven effectively fills his scenes with a gray-blue pallor so that when blood-red banners of swastikas appear on screen, they're all the more chilling. The score by veteran Pino Donaggio (Carrie, Dressed to Kill) is equally cold and dark.
Ultimately, the movie's great expectations stand on very young shoulders: Martijn Lakemeier, who plays Michiel. He appears in practically every frame and ably carries the plot to a successful and satisfying finish. It is a star turn of the highest order. Also appearing is Jamie Campbell Bower (Sweeney Todd, The Twilight Saga) as a wounded British soldier whom Michiel hides and eventually shepherds to freedom. Michiel becomes a spy, protector and eventual hero in short order.
Filmgoers have been down this road before. World War II melodramas have become cliched and, more often than not, overwrought. But Winter in Wartime echoes the thrill of a Robert Louis Stevenson adventure tempered by the tenderness and insight of the Diary of Anne Frank. It could easily become a classic.