TORONTO 2001 REVIEW: Murky "Blue World"; Sverak Slackens with War Film
by Peter Brunette
(indieWIRE/ 09.10.01) -- Jan Sverak's "Dark Blue World" is a not fully realized, but generally competent hybrid of Hollywood movie and foreign language art film, an uneasy mixture that is also figured in its sometimes confusing blend of English and Czech. If this story of two Czech airmen who flee to England to fly for the RAF misses lots of chances, it's solidly watchable, nonetheless.
Maybe the best thing about "Dark Blue World" (recently acquired by Sony Pictures Classics) is that it illuminates an aspect of that perennially overworked subject area, the Nazi devastation of Europe -- will they still be making movies about it in 2101, I wonder? -- by dramatizing the plight of those brave foreign-born pilots who, far from home and their loved ones, had to cope simultaneously with Messerschmidts in the air and the xenophobic, dotty English on the ground. The predictable clash of cultures, if not exactly new, is mildly entertaining to watch.
The film's structure, though it ultimately fails, is also fascinatingly put together. Much as he leavened the potentially sickening sweetness of his previous film, the hugely successful "Kolya" (written, as was "Dark Blue World," by his father, Zdenek Sverak,) with a large dollop of Eastern European cynicism and black humor, here Sverak sketches in a parallel narrative, set in a horrible Czech communist prison in 1950, where the returning pilot-heroes have been stuck after being exposed to such dangerous western ideas as democracy and freedom. Since Sverak wisely introduces this potentially tonic story right from the beginning, it works best when it undercuts the various moments of fleeting happiness that the characters experience in England.
But while it was clearly intended to supply foreboding and gravity to the wartime story, its own narrative thrust -- let alone its various thematic threads (embodied, for example, in the person of a former SS doctor who now works in the prison) -- is never really developed. In fact, the whole film appears to have been severely truncated (the original script was clearly much longer), as when our protagonists, Franta (Ondrej Vetchy) and Karel (Krystof Hadek), their country overrun by Nazis, ride merrily down a Czech road in a motorcycle and the next thing you know they are training in England.
Sverak is very good at creating minor characters. A flick of his brush, and the Czechs' preternaturally patient English teacher -- who is bent on doing her part against Hitler in the classroom -- comes fully alive in three lines of dialogue. And on the cinematic microlevel, he's also masterful, filling his film with acutely observed, if tiny, gestures that speak volumes, as when a character scarfs up the remains of his dinner, in the dark, as the bombs fall. But this director is also not one to leave a heartstring unplucked if he can get away with it, and in this film the self-consciously adorable Russian child Kolya is replaced by Franta's even more adorable dog in several scenes.
Where the film doesn't work is when it goes Hollywood. Dangerous dogfights (largely the product of computer generated imagery that sticks out in a movie that is otherwise small and cozy) and hair-raising emergency takeoffs -- gosh, will they clear those trees? -- are heavily underlined by the conventionally soaring musical score. For the most part, however, these moments work, as long as you don't think about it too much.
What doesn't work at all is the love triangle (shades of this year's other CGI war movie, "Pearl Harbor") that, never fully motivated or believable, pulverize the film's more serious themes, which simply evaporate. Many stereotyped characters also make a ritual appearance, like the impetuous young pilot, the courageous, beloved leader, the by-the-book base commander who eventually comes around, the cynical, booze-besotted older pilot who sings torch songs at the piano (the film's title appears in one of these, but its meaning remains a mystery to me), the sexually-deprived local woman whose husband is missing in action, and so on. In a war movie, I guess, these will be the cards we are dealt, and the excellent actors who bring these clich