Its backdrop, a plane full of betrothed Dutch women flying from London to New Zealand in search of a new and more adventurous life, neatly incorporates a lively chapter of history’s “Last Great Air Race.”
An ensemble cast adds colour and dimension to a narrative that could easily have fallen flat with a slimmer focus. And New Zealand’s downtown Christchurch and sprawling countryside frame the film with vistas and small towns that will seem refreshingly unfamiliar to younger audiences singularly versed in the nostalgic American era of Mad Men and Pan Am.
Chronicling three of the young women aboard the Flying Dutchman across a decade, Bride Flight concerns itself with life’s seminal events: youthful indiscretion, adult commitment, marriage, children, faith and the shadow of grief.
Ada (Karina Smulders), a mousey country girl, finds her new home among a strict religious sect, leaving her little room to explore her burgeoning sexuality. Margorie (Elisse Schaap) finds happiness in love and home, but cannot bear the child that completes her vision of domestic stability. It is Esther (Anna Drijver), a brash and unmarried fashion designer, who finds herself unexpectedly with child, one which she cannot abide raising in a world that would condone the death of her own kin. Serving as a loose center to these satellite stories is Frank (Waldemar Torenstra), an unassumingly handsome Don Juan who has a crucial role to play in each of their lives.
Ultimately, it is in its execution of this rich, multi-character fabric that Bride Flight is inherently uneven. While the ensemble is uniformly well cast (with performers that feel like organic members of a bygone era, not contemporary transplants) and expertly played, the film’s first half feels hurried and clipped.
Plot developments crucial to the film aren’t given room to breathe and the supporting cast of husbands, equally integral, is barely an afterthought. One feels as though Sombogaart is teeming over with ideas, but lacks the room to lay the proper groundwork.
In spite of this, by the satisfying second hour he is able to settle into a nuanced balance between pace and plot, handing the audience an engaging scene on the one hand, and the time to consume it on the other.
Operating as an elegant counterpoint to the dramatics of Bride Flight is cinematographer Piotr Kukla’s muted color palette, subtly evoking a past of sepia-toned photographs without veering into parody.
The rich reds of Esther’s Polka-dot dress and the deep blues and purples of the vintage cars ornament the frame so memorably that it is an especially harsh transition when the film pulls us forward in time to the harshly-lit (and altogether unnecessary) modern-day sequences.
Kukla’s work is such a sustained and understated accomplishment throughout the film, it seems at best a disservice and at worst a practical joke to wallpaper it over with such a lamentable and overwrought musical score.
At heart this film is a sweeping saga that sets out to tell a complex three-tiered story in an all-too-familiar era from a new angle, both historically and geographically. While far from an unqualified success, Bride Flight is a brisk two-hours with enough good intentions to be consistently endearing.