Friesian snowflakes and searching eyes are among the first images we see as we are introduced to Nynke van Hictum (Monic Hendrickx), the pseudonym of a Dutch author renowned most especially for "Afke's Ten", a collection of tales based upon stories originally told to her as a child. Nynke (usually addressed as Sjoukje in the film) was the wife of noted Dutch socialist, lawyer, and statesman Pieter Jelles Troelstra (Jeroen Willems).

Sjoukje Bokma de Boer* believes that she has met the man of her dreams in Troelstra. They share similar tastes and interests in literature and poetry as well as a mutual fondness for Friesian culture. Equally enticing to this young, romantic woman is the fact that her man of choice appears to accept and treat her as an equal. Once married, however, things change radically as Troelstra becomes increasingly enamored of socialism and any plans for future collaboration in the fields of literature and poetry quickly dissolve as Sjoukje is forced into the roles of housewife and mother. Her father (Rients Gratama), who sternly disapproves of any socialist affiliations, warns Troelstra against such undesirable tendencies and refuses to support either his daughter or her husband during their ensuing years of difficulty and deprivation. Nynke's isolation increases steadily and, following the birth of her second child, she finally suffers a nervous breakdown. Her psychiatrist suggests that she relinquish all fanciful aspirations toward higher goals and seek satisfaction and fulfillment in the duties of motherhood. While making a brave and desperate attempt to adhere to this advice, she continues to grow more and more alienated from herself.

Although the script uses broad strokes to deal with the couple's relationship and marriage, the film concentrates more specifically upon the story of a woman who, with the passing of the 19th century, discovers herself searching for her true identity in a world where women are normally expected to take a back seat in deference to their husband's positions. At that time, females were expected to act according to their husband's wishes and any attempt to stray from the sociologically accepted path could, as we discover, easily lead to a woman becoming branded as hysterical and end in commitment for suitable treatment. Nynke finds her life continually overshadowed by her husband's name, fame and activities. Struggling constantly as she endures endless self-sacrifice, she longs for her seemingly unattainable personal freedom. At odds with the love she feels as wife and mother, the frustrations of the private person smothered within her smolder like the burning coals in her hand. As time progresses, even the joy she shares with her children is temporarily torn from her grasp.

Monic Hendrickx, winner of the Dutch Golden Calf in 1988 for her performance in "The Polish Bride", is perfection in the title role, managing to capture the smallest expressions and subtly interpret the internal turmoil of a woman in a difficult situation. The entire cast delivers such convincing portrayals that one is easily able to understand their characters as well as managing to reflect upon the backdrop that has formed them. This is a world ruled by standards and beliefs that, to some extent, despite the freedoms now prevalent in the twenty-first century, still remain sufficiently rooted within the country to leave their mark on policy and decision making. This, however, is neither the time nor place to begin an extensive analysis of Calvinism and its repercussions.

Production designer Gert Brinkers and art director Anne Winterink (as well as location scout Hans van den Berg and location manager Remke van Marum) have, in their collaboration, succeeded in creating one of the most realistically visual atmospheres captured in a Dutch period film for some years. Nothing appears out of place as we travel through the panoramas and private rooms of 1900 and the exquisite costume designs of Anne Verhoeven make the illusion all the stronger. DP Paul van den Bos has captured all these elements with a sensitive eye for detail. Writer/director Pieter Verhoeff has managed to create an enchanting and memorable film that will undoubtedly find its deserved place as a Lowlands' film classic.

*It is curious (and perhaps a trifle ironic, upon reflection) that a woman whose major "oeuvre" was in the arena of children's books should wind up becoming the subject for a cinematic analysis of sexual discrimination and sociological suppression in the 19th century. It might be interesting to find out how a Dutch columnist possessing a contemporary feministic point of view might regard this film (for example, someone like Cisca Dresselhuys, editor-in-chief for Opzij).

© 1994-2006 The Green Hartnett