A director can make the scope of his or her film as alternatively large or as intimate as one might please, lade the movie's subject matter with all the big themes in the world, and fill out the proceedings with weepy strings and meaningful glances, but if the characters don't register with the viewer, the result is likely to be yawning indifference. That is, of course, provided the film seeks its effects within the confines of traditional character-based plotting, and, for all its temporal cross-cutting and narrative elisions, Ben Sombogaart's decades-spanning multi-character drama Bride Flight does exactly that.
The story of three young Dutch women and one young man emigrating to New Zealand in search of a better life after WWII, the film begins aboard an airplane as the four characters meet. The women flirt with handsome Frank (Waldemar Torenstra), but, as the trio are all either married or engaged and on their way to meet their would-be husbands (as were many other young ladies on the real-life trip, thus the nickname "the bride flight"), they engage in little more than a cuddle or a kiss. Arriving in Christchurch, one woman marries happily, one unhappily, and one not at all, jilting her husband at the altar, but all end up keeping in touch with each other and with Frank.
As the years go by (and Sombogaart repeatedly cuts back and forth from the present day in which the women attend the recently deceased Frank's funeral), no shortage of drama abounds. Feisty Esther (Anna Drijver), pregnant but unwilling to bring a child into the world after the Holocaust has claimed the life of her entire family, gives up her baby to the barren Marjorie (Elise Schaap), a decision the former woman will take her whole life to come to terms with. Meanwhile, miserable Ada (Karina Smulders) flees her husband's religious fanatic family for a chance of happiness with Frank.
It's all very tastefully handled by Sombogaart, shot in plenty of staid compositions whose denuded color scheme suggests a historical remove, but it rarely generates any heat, even during a pair of graphic, but not particularly erotic sex scenes. That's because, while each of the three women are given their particular dilemmas, none are sufficiently fleshed out beyond the demands of these limited situations. The camera lingers frequently over the face of Ada, caught between the twin poles of desire and family/duty/God, and Smulders does her best to convey a combination of dissatisfaction and yearning, but even with the cue-emotion musical accompaniment, her situation feels more schematic than authentically alive. Esther fares only slightly better as her feistiness is redirected toward her maternal desire for her abandoned son, while neither Marjorie nor Frank are ever defined beyond a single characteristic (love of family and convention and cool insouciance, respectively). As such, Sombogaart's handling of Marieke van der Pol's knotty script may be a skillful bit of narrative maneuvering, but it all seems like an empty exercise, one sorely lacking in any kind of empathetic payoff.