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Tmavomodrý svet (Dark Blue World)

(2001) *** R
114 min. Sony Pictures Classics. Directors: Jan Sverak, Alice Nellis. Cast: Ondrej Vetchy, Krystof Hadek, Tara Fitzgerald, Charles Dance, Oldrich Kaiser.

Pearl Harbor spent a lot of money in an attempt to dazzle and sweep an audience into breathtaking WWII action and romance. But director Michael Bay threw a wrench in his own war machine by drowning out the human element with exclamation points. With a relatively understated approach, director Jan Sverák takes the same essential emotional beats of Pearl Harbor and affects genuine empathy for his heartbroken characters. In Dark Blue World, romanticism and war seem hopelessly entertwined in the good old fashion.

The film begins in a post-war Czech prison, with the fighter pilots who resisted Hitler by flying for the Brits during the war. These war heroes have been jailed as the same rebellious character which helped to bring down Hitler represents a danger to the communists. Before long, we follow Czech Air Force pilot Frantisek Slama (Ondrej Vetchy) into his past, where he and his hotheaded protege Karel (Krystof Hadek) watch helplessly as their country offers a bloodless surrender to the Nazis. Before the other shoe drops, they slip away to England and the Royal Air Force, represented by stiff-upper-lip Charles Dance as Wing Commander Bentley. Bentley treats the eager pilots as last-ditch reserves, but soon enough they see action. Karel, in fact, gets the other kind of action he craves when he meets "war widow" Susan (Tara Fitzgerald), who becomes the lynchpin in a Pearl Harbor-esque love triangle.

Sverák distinguishes himself with impressive aerial sequences which create dramatic tension with effects that might now be considered rudimentary. The actors achieve similarly simple and effective results. Vetchy's strong-as-a-rock uprightness of character comes through in his obvious depth of thought and subtly displayed restraint and patience in trying situations; these qualities effectively underscore his moral struggle, which resides at the heart of the film. Hadek makes his supremely callow character endearing instead of annoying, which is no small feat, while Fitzgerald quietly and credibly endures her own series of challenges. It bears noting that the film is a Czech-German co-production set in no small part in England, so the film is only partly subtitled.

The film gets substantial mileage for American audiences for exploring an unknown corner of World War II, but Sverák deserves credit for sustaining a romantic plot that could play like a disposable BBC drama. It's familiar, but carries the same pull for the viewer as the pilots. They submit to the dark blue worlds of love and war, each of which can mortally wound the heart.

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