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A little too desperate for an Oscar?
Jan Svěrák's Tmavomodrý svět (Dark Blue World, 2001)
Tmavomodrý svět tries to cram in all the epic qualities of an Oscar-winner, but does it really stand any hope of getting one, asks Mark Preskett.
Czech cinema’s latest foray into Hollywood-style film-making, Tmavomodrý svět (Dark Blue World, 2001), contains all the right ingredients for acclaim and fortune. First of all, it draws on an all-star cast, including two British heavyweights, Charles Dance and Tara Fitzgerald. It has the largest budget ever to shoot a Czech film—USD six million. It also has an Oscar-winning director—Jan Svěrák, of Kolja (Kolya, 1996) fame—shooting a script from an award-winning writer (the director's father, Zdeněk Svěrák). Last but not least, it employs a true-to-life story of heroism set against the backdrop of the Second World War.
|Tmavomodrý svět : Epic stuff|
Following its premiere in May, attended by the leading lights of Czech film and public life, including the President Vacláv Havel himself, the press duly waxed lyrical about this Czech "blockbuster." Darina Křivánková reviewing the film for the national daily Lidové noviny
after the film's release, to give just one of many possible examples, awarded it a perfect five stars and commented, "Anything less than an Oscar will be regarded as a loss."
All Czech box-office records were broken (the latest figures reveal that 730,000 people out of a country of 10 million have already seen the film), a distribution contract was signed with Sony Pictures Classics and, sure enough, the film chosen by the Czech Film and Television Academy to represent the country for this year's Academy Award for best foreign-language film.
Mission accomplished... well, sort of. After the hype had died down, a few dissenting voices were heard in the Czech press questioning whether Tmavomodrý svět actually lived up to the hype and whether it had a chance of being nominated for an Academy Award. Marta Švagrová, for example, writing for Lidové noviny asked its readers, "Is Tmavomodrý svět really that good?"
Starting in Czechoslovakia just before its annexation by Nazi Germany, the film centres on the friendship between Flight Lt František Sláma (Ondřej Vetchý) and his young trainee Karel Vojtíšek (Kryštof Hádek). Frustrated that they have been ordered not to fight the invaders, the two pilots decide to leave behind their girlfriends, family and friends, and, in Franta's case, his dog and flee to England.
They join other Czech pilots at an RAF base and spend three months preparing to fly—including formation-flying on bicycles equipped with wings and learning important English phrases such as "tally-ho" and "roger" —before they are finally scrambled.
|All's fair in love and war|
On one flight, the Czech squadron are ambushed and Karel's plane hit, forcing him to bail out over southern England. Karel finds refuge in a remote cottage, home to Susan (Tara Fitzgerald), whose navy husband is missing in action. After his return to base, Karel takes Franta to see Susan and the two are drawn together, despite Franta's guilt at hurting his younger friend who has fallen for Susan.
The darker side of Czech history
Throughout the film we are taken to the future—the early 1950s—where we find Flight Lt Sláma languishing in a communist prison in Czechoslovakia. It is these dark scenes of the future that temper the heroism of the pilots during the war; three years after their return as heroes, the communists took power in Czechoslovakia and branded the men traitors, contaminated by capitalism, democracy and freedom.
Zdenek Svěrák, when he began penning the screenplay in 1996, obviously knew the interest the story would generate—especially in the Czech Republic. "The film throws up an interesting dilemma for Czech audiences," says Svěrák. "Should they feel proud or ashamed? These are our heroes, our knights in shining armour, and we treated them so badly."
During these flash-forwards, parallels are drawn between the Nazis and the Communists that followed them by a bitter former SS doctor, who treats Franta for pneumonia. "We lost the war, we have to be punished, but why are you here?" Dr Blaschek asks Sláma. These prison scenes are among the most powerful moments of the film. Do, though, the dark parallels in the prison and the inventive plot structure make the film work? The answer, unfortunately, is a resounding no.
Mixing it all together
Tmavomodrý svět has a huge identity crisis. Is it a romantic epic telling of the struggle over the love of a beautiful English woman? Are we watching a classic war movie, with death-defying stunts, breath-taking dog fights and narrow escapes? Or a film depicting the tragedy of a few Czech pilots, now languishing in jail having fallen from their hero status.
The Svěráks have attempted to include all three elements into their film. At 115 minutes the film is not short, and yet there are huge gaps in the time frame that confuse at best. One moment Franta and Karel are riding tandem on a motorbike in northern Moravia, the next they are training in south England. The lightening romance between Susan and the pilots is equally absurd. Perhaps evidence that the film has clearly been massively cut and only a three-hour war epic would have been sufficient to develop all the lines. In its current form, it is a case of too much in too short a space of time.
Svěrák's liking for sweet sentimentality, a tendency that could be seen in Kolja, has developed into a serious addiction. Every scene in which Franta's loveable dog appears, makes you want to reach for a brown, paper bag. Many of the characters are simple stereotyped caricatures: the booze-besotted older pilot who sings torch songs at the piano, the by-the-book commander who eventually comes around (Charles Dance) and the likeable impetuous young pilot.
Acting in translation
Zdenek Svěrák has the ability to quickly and skilfully paint a picture of a character. However, he also has constructs each scene with the aim of eliciting a single specific emotion—happiness, grief, sorrow, pain or joy. There are far too many moments of emotional over-simplicity made in Hollywood, and the effect is to make the film seem rather bland and unexciting.
|Grappling with the language barrier|
There is also the problem of language—combining Czech and English was brave move and one that, perhaps, over-stretches Svěrák's talents as a director. Scenes of the pilots struggling over their English are real and true to life. However, much of the Czechs' acting in English comes across as wooden. Even Vetchý, a first-rate actor, struggles to bridge the barrier, and while all the actors are clearly trying to put in solid performances only the two male leads are given any opportunity to try and shine.
If Tmavomodrý svět emerges as anything from all this messiness in the plot and acting, it is that the film was deliberately conceived as an attempt to win another Oscar for Svěrák. Sony has put the release date for the film in the United States at December—perfect timing for an Oscar nomination. I would not like to predict Tmavomodrý svět's chances: quality of film and Academy awards rarely go hand in hand. The film certainly has the right ingredients for the Oscar recipe, but the end result tastes dreadful.
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