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Black Book review

by: Caroline Westbrook - Last updated: 2007-04-30

Black Book

Black Book

The latest film from director Paul Verhoeven, Black Book tells the story of a young Jewish woman in Nazi-occupied Holland, who goes undercover as a spy. As the movie is released on DVD, Caroline Westbrook offers her verdict.

Director Paul Verhoeven is best known for a string of blockbusters that include Robocop, Showgirls, Basic Instinct and Starship Troopers – but before he headed for Hollywood he spent over two decades making movies in his native Netherlands. And he has returned to his Dutch roots for his latest film, the World War II drama Black Book. The most expensive Dutch movie ever made, it's an extravagant, over-the-top production that bears all the hallmarks of a Verhoeven blockbuster – even if it tries to be something a bit more highbrow.

The story focuses on Rachel (Carice Van Houten), a young Jewish woman in hiding in the Netherlands towards the end of the Second World War, who attempts to escape to a liberated area with her family. The escape party is ambushed and her entire family is killed but Rachel manages to escape and, adopting a new identity and image, joins the Resistance to find out who was responsible for their deaths. Along the way, she becomes caught in an intricate web of mystery, which ultimately puts her own life in danger.

If you're familiar with Paul Verhoeven's work, then it doesn't take too long to work out that Black Book is a typical outing for the director – he is renowned for graphic violence and explicit content in his films, and there is certainly plenty of that on display here. Yes, the film might be subtitled and yes, the subject matter might be a tad more serious than we're used to seeing from Verhoeven, but for all its arthouse aspirations it offers no let-up on the sex, nudity and gore, with some scenes that definitely aren't for the squeamish. It starts off quietly enough – with our heroine, now relocated to Israel, remembering her past after being reunited with an old friend – but once the body count starts rising, then we're taken into territory that fans of the director will have seen plenty of times before.

That said, this boasts enough tension and edge-of-the-seat action to rival many of Verhoeven's more commercial efforts, as Rachel faces one dangerous situation after another, never quite certain who to trust – and the fast-paced second hour will perk up those viewers who might have been frustrated but the somewhat slow beginning. It suffers from a rather confusing plot, which may well leave you baffled at times no matter how hard you concentrate, but ultimately remains watchable thanks to some sterling work from its cast, most notably the excellent Van Houten. This isn't a film for everybody, and it's more of a flashy escapist adventure than a serious social commentary about Nazi-occupied Europe, but if you can forgive its shortcomings then Black Book is well worth a look.

Black Book (Cert 15, Tartan DVD) is out now.