A ruthless court baliff is found dead, and a young legal assistant is the prime suspect. As he is interrogated, he explains his life in flashback
Each year, the least predictable category when the Oscars are handed out is the Best Foreign Film. This is largely because many of the Academy's august membership don't know one end of a subtitle from the other. But this year they had their choice made easy for them by the fact that Character is the most American film to have been nominated in decades.
Although adapted from a classic of modern Dutch literature, Mike Van Diem's debut feature could have been made by any number of Golden Age craftsmen, although William Wyler and Orson Welles most readily spring to mind. Told as a flashback from a crime, the action takes place mostly in 1920s Rotterdam. Katadreuffe (Van Huet) is determined to overcome his bailiff father (Decleir) who persecutes the boy in revenge for his refusal to marry. Having failed to make a go of a small tobacconist's, Katadreuffe becomes a legal clerk (supervised by the splendidly eccentric Victor Low), only to discover that he is indebted to his father, who aims to ruin him through bankruptcy.
While occasionally feeling like Dickens on a Sunday afternoon, this is compelling. Resisting the flourishes that tempt many first-timers, Van Diem tells his story succinctly and cinematically, thanks to some Zola-esque art direction and handsomely grim photography. A romantic subplot involving Tamar Van Den Dop somewhat diminishes Van Huet's impact, but even a stronger presence would have been overshadowed by the ferociously dour Decleir, who is every bit as forbidding when confronting his nightmares as he is extolling the virtues of self-help.
Whether it should have pipped The Thief to the Oscar is debatable, but on its own terms this is dark, demanding and very Dutch.