Jonathan Fryer

Writer, Lecturer, Broadcaster and Liberal Democrat Politician

A Noble Intention (Publieke Werken, 2015) ****

Posted by jonathanfryer on Saturday, 24th October, 2020

Victoria Hotel, Amsterdam

Opposite Amsterdam’s main railway station is a large hotel called the Victoria, built in late 19th Century Parisian style, awkwardly out of keeping with more traditional Dutch houses around. I must have passed it a hundred times over the years but had only half-noticed the bizarre indentation in its facade in which two old-style Dutch buildings nestle. Once one is fully aware of them it is obvious that the hotel was actually built round them because two house owners refused to sell to developers. That is where Joram Lürsen’s fictionalised Publieke Werken (retitled as A Noble Intention in English; available on Netflix in Dutch with subtitles) takes off. Modernisation is beginning to impact the Netherlands but a violin-maker who lives and works in one of the old houses is reluctant to sell, demanding far more money than the developers are prepared to pay. His stand is justified not only because he does not want to leave the house but also because if he gets the inflated price he is demanding then he can finance an extraordinary scheme cooked up with a chemist cousin in a small country town to enable a community of impoverished peat-cutters to emigrate to America, escaping not just their sub-human living conditions but also, in the case of a Jewish family, religious persecution.

The key figures in the movie are the two cousins — Gijs Scholten van Aschat as Vedder, the violin-maker, who ages and disintegrates before one’s eyes during the film, and Jacob Derwig as the good-hearted chemist, Anijs — plus the father of the Jewish peat household Bennemin (Juda Goslinga). The quality of the acting helps one’s suspension of disbelief in accepting the objectively more unlikely elements of the plot. And there is an effective contrast between the noble intentions of some of the characters with the ignoble prejudices and outright criminality of some others. Even the three main characters have blatant flaws, which enhances their credibility. And from the opening scene of a rape there is plenty of brutal reality to counter-balance the idealistic good intentions.

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