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Director Paul Verhoeven's well-acted but overblown (and overly long) WWII thriller Black Book is like The Diary of Anne Frank by way of Basic Instinct.


Structured as one big flashback, Black Book tells the story of Rachel Stein (Carice van Houten), a Dutch Jew in hiding during World War II. When her cover is blown, she reunites with her family to try to sneak out of the country--only to be ambushed by the Germans. The sole survivor of the attack, one-time cabaret singer Rachel joins the resistance movement, dyes her dark hair blonde, and becomes Ellis de Vries. A chance meeting with nice-guy German officer Capt. Ludwig Müntze (Sebastian Koch) leads to both a secretarial job at Nazi headquarters (a handy place for a spy) and romance. But after Ellis discovers the truth behind the assault that killed her family, things start spinning out of control, with multiple betrayals and double-crosses threatening to destroy what little she has left.


The majority of Black Book rests squarely on van Houten's slender shoulders--so it's a good thing she's up to the task. As lovely as any real 1940s screen siren, she's also believably tough and resilient, which is a good thing, given everything Rachel/Ellis has to go through. Classier than the heroines of previous Verhoeven movies like Showgirls and Basic Instinct, Ellis still shares a scrappy determination and sensuous femininity with her cinematic sisters, and van Houten throws herself into the part without reservation (and, in some scenes, without clothes). Koch is both idealistic and pragmatic as Capt. Müntze--which makes him a noble counterpart to the odious Lieut. Günther Franken (Waldemar Kobus), whom Ellis is determined to take down. She finds an ally in fellow secretary Ronnie (a scene-stealing, Christine Baranski-esque Halina Reijn), whose depths prove unexpected.


Verhoeven is hardly known as a master of subtlety, and Black Book is no exception. Why have one double-cross when you can squeeze in three or four? Why stop at a topless scene when you can show your heroine dying the carpet to match the curtains? Why use subtle scoring to enhance a scene's mood when heavy-handed musical cues can pound a moment home? But even with this tendency toward excess aside, the movie has problems. The 145-minute running time throws off the pacing; in the final third, there's a disconcerting sense of multiple endings. And, ultimately, there's a certain lack of suspense--since the film is set up as a flashback, audiences know that Rachel/Ellis is going to survive no matter what's thrown at her. Black Book may be better than many of the other movies on the director's resume, but it's still a Verhoeven flick through and through.

Bottom Line rated this film 2 stars.