Dir: Ben Sombogaart. Netherlands. 2002. 135mins
Proving that Miramax doesn't have a monopoly on well-crafted, Oscar-friendly literary adaptations, Twin Sisters is a sweeping version of the European best-seller by Tessa de Loo. A straightforward account of twin sisters separated by family circumstances and the bitter divisions in wartime Europe, it should appeal to the same middlebrow arthouse audience that embraced Istvan Szabo's family saga Sunshine and last year's Foreign Language Oscar-winner Nowhere In Africa. Its Oscar nomination for Best Foreign Language Film will significantly raise the profile of a Dutch production that has already received festival exposure and achieved notable box-office success in the Benelux countries.
Even-handed in its treatment of both characters, the film attempts to convey the way individuals are swept along by the tide of history. Separated after the death of their parents, the sickly Lotte is sent to well-meaning, middle-class relatives in Holland whilst her twin sister Anna is left to the tender mercies of brutal peasant farmers in Germany where she is denied an education, frequently beaten and forced to earn her keep. When they are reunited after 10 years, political changes within Europe have created a seemingly unbridgeable gap between them and the story continues to emphasise their contrasting fortunes: Anna (Uhl) marries SS Officer Martin (Knizka) while Lotte (Reuten) endures the tragedy of her Jewish boyfriend David (Spitzenberger) being sent to Auschwitz.
The catalogue of separation, ill health, romance, death and betrayal provides enough material for a mini-series. The film is inevitably episodic as it stretches from the 1920s through the war years and back to the present day where the aged Anna (Okras) attempts a last reconciliation with her sister. There is a feeling that these are merely snapshots from a family album and only scratch the surface of their lives and the events around them.
Director Ben Sombogaart maintains a tight grip on a potentially rambling narrative, achieving a clear distinction between different time periods and a balance between the two lives. Anna's youth takes place in the gloom of dark, muddy farmyard barns whilst Lotte is seen in comfortable rooms where the light shines, the piano beckons and privilege presides.
Crisp, clear cut and sincere, Twin Sisters is absorbing and has the sweep of a superior soap opera whilst avoiding the excesses of pure melodrama. By the time the now elderly sisters finally confront a lifetime of disappointment and bitterness, the audience has a genuine emotional investment in a resolution that is understated and quietly moving. The strong performances from senior actresses Gudrun Okras and Ellen Vogel lend vitality and bite to the present day scenes although Thekla Reuten and Nadja Uhl are equally accomplished in a sentimental film that justifies the telling of another story on the many ways in which war destroys lives.
Production company: 1dtV
International sales: High Point Films (44) 20 7586 3686
Producers: Anton Smit, Hanneke Niens
Co-producer: Jani Thiltges
Screenplay: Marieke Van Der Pol adapted from the novel by Tessa de Loo
Cinematography: Piotr Kukla
Editor: Herman P Koerts
Production design: Michel De Graaf
Music: Fons Merkies
Main cast: Thekla Reuten, Nadja Uhl, Ellen Vogel, Gudrun Okras, Jeroen Spitzenberger, Roman Knizka