Because of the laws and regulations regarding assisted suicide for the dying and chronically pained throughout almost all of North America, the actual concept behind the Dutch drama A Good Death couldn’t easily be translated to audiences here, but the emotions and depiction of familial relations in a time of crisis are universally understandable. Anyone that’s lost a loved one and had to deal with the aftermath among friends and family will find plenty of common ground with the characters in Wannie de Wijn’s film, even if they don’t necessarily like them as people or if they disagree morally to the main character wanting to die peacefully surrounded by those who love him most.
The day before Bernhard (Wilbert Gieske) will pass away after struggling through the final throes of terminal cancer, he assembles with his two brothers, his current lover, his daughter, and his long time family doctor. The relations between all of them have become strained and the time to make amends or question Bernhard’s decisions has become intensely limited. His boorish brother Michael (Huub Stapel) suspects that Berhard was forced into the decision by his wife Hannah (Will van Kralingen, who sadly herself passed away after a battle with cancer herself in November of last year). Hannah used to date Michael and the resentment and mistrust between the both of them is a two way street. Their other brother Ruben (Hans Thissen) is autistic and there’s concern that he might not fully understand what’s going on, and he places added strain on the situation because of his inappropriate affection for his niece Sammie, who would prefer to grieve alone without the whole lot of them around.
Wijn’s film takes place almost entirely in a single room, which lends an air of claustrophobia and foreboding even in the few scenes that manage to leave Bernhard’s living room. It also lends the whole thing the feeling of a stage play, but when the story comes equipped with performances as good as these, it’s easily forgiven. Gieske gives Berhard a great deal of strength and dignity, never reducing the character to someone who would spout useless death bed platitudes or lapsing into coughing fits for dramatic effect. He’s subtle and refined, which is rare for a story of a terminally dying man. Stapel’s Michael masks his inner pain with a thick smoke screen of rage and indignation around him. He’s clearly hurting, but he’s too self-important and image conscious to admit it. Thissen also refuses to make Ruben into someone too dense to know what’s happening, and watching the character try to keep himself composed and together is fascinating even if he doesn’t get too much to do outside of scenes that squarely focus only on him.
The film’s narrative runs out of steam about an hour in and nothing new really arises as the film begins the march towards its conclusion, but by that point the audience knows the characters well enough to follow them through on the final journey that they’re all taking together. It’s an interesting final third that achieves what Wijn most likely wanted to capture in the first place. It shows what happens when these conflicting emotions come crashing down and they force everyone to step outside themselves for a moment and realize what the whole situation was about from the start.
Producer and husband of the late Will van Kralingen, Pim Wallis de Vries, and actor Wilbert Gieske will be attending select screenings of the film and doing Q&As during the film’s opening weekend in Toronto, starting this Friday.