Nova Zembla, the first Dutch film to be shot in 3D, tells the story of the daring expedition to establish a northern sea route from Western Europe to Asia, by sailing east through the Arctic waters above Russia. The year is 1596, and the Dutch Republic is at war with the Spanish Empire. Conventional trade routes along the African coast are controlled by Spain, and the Dutch, impoverished by war, are desperate to find an alternative to reach Asia. Stern expedition leader Willem Barentsz is played by Derek de Lint, known for his roles in the Paul Verhoeven films Soldier of Orange and Black Book. Other major roles are filled by newcomer
Robert de Hoog and Victoria’s Secret model Doutzen Kroes.
The film starts in Amsterdam, where Minister Petrus Plancius (Jan Decleir) is speaking to a congregation about the necessity of the expedition. We meet Gerrit de Veer (De Hoog), a poor but ambitious young man, and the assistant of the minister. He’s in love with the minister’s daughter Catharina (Kroes), but knows being with her is unrealistic for a man in his position. Eager to join the expedition to make a name for himself, Gerrit asks Plancius, who is funding the expedition, for a recommendation. He gets it, but mostly because it’s a way for Plancius to get Gerrit far away from his daughter. Barentsz and ship captain Jacob van Heemskerck (Victor Reinier) agree to take him with them to chronicle the journey.
Once the crew embarks on what will be a seventeen month journey, the movie starts getting good. Gerrit struggles to gain acceptance among the men, and as the journey progresses and the ship reaches colder waters, the tension rises and rises. It reaches its peak when the ship gets stranded in the ice and the crew is forced to set up camp and sit out the winter on the Russian archipelago of Nova Zembla. A period of darkness, cold, desperation and polar bears ensues.
This is also when the best element of the movie becomes evident: the visuals. The film’s intimidating yet beautiful arctic surroundings perfectly conveys the isolation and intense cold the desperate crew had to deal with. The 3D did not disappoint (like it so often does), and added to the intensity. Combined with the strong performance of the actors, this really pulls you into the story and makes you root for the crew to persevere and make it home.
This excitement is occasionally interrupted, however, by Gerrit’s flashbacks and hallucinations of Catharina, but since we never really got to know her in the movie or learn about the depth of their relationship, you can’t help but think, “Oh that’s right, I’m supposed to care about this.” It seems somewhat insignificant compared to the plight of the stranded crew you’ve come to identify with. This, in combination with the somewhat rushed and corny ending, is the only discernible flaw in an otherwise compelling movie.
This story is a relatively unknown part of European history and the film does a great job of making it accessible and bringing it to life. It has tension, adventure, drama, and I can heartily recommend it to any history buff or fan of a well-made period piece.