Largely a two-character psychological drama, writer-director Urszula Antoniak’s Nothing Personal has sufficient visual and performance-driven smarts, despite shortcomings of structure and plot, that its maker’s promise is more solid than this debut feature. A young, fiery-haired Dutch woman (Lotte Verbeek) has seen her marriage come to an end—we only see the elliptical hints of the twist of a golden ring and a rummage sale outside an emptied Amsterdam apartment—and is soon hitchhiking along the rocky shores of Connemara, evading pervy Irish motorists, pitching the blue tent rolled on her back in one stunning mist-suffused field after another. She saunters into gardening work at the home of a dour, ailing widower (Stephen Rea), where her bartered labor soon expands into spading the bogs and harvesting seaweed, and the pair’s mutual snappishness becomes, both predictably and with an enigmatic aloofness, a platonic but ambiguously symbiotic partnership. Their agreement not to ask or discuss the “personal” fades, and she grows into the role of minder as his physical and emotional needs mount.
The uningratiating, forceful Verbeek (whose itinerant is called only “hey you”) and the virtuosically sad-sack Rea make a watchable pair of adversary-allies, even though their initial antipathy seems as forced in Antoniak’s script as their eventual outing to the town pub, where Hey You chugs a pint and dances a mean fiddle jig. This narrative of two loners finding each other would be a screwballish comedy or grungy romance in more commercial hands, but given the trimmings of a subtle, sinuous score by Ethan Rose, and the Rea character’s bleak affection for warbling Porter Wagoner’s “Rubber Room” and quoting Euripides (“It’s not for us to struggle after tiresome perfection”), Nothing Personal is clearly headed for a less fairy-tale-friendly destination. That the morbidly sentimental wrap up is one of the film’s most ill-judged moves (along with intermittent, cryptic chapter titles like “Marriage” and “Alone”) leaves us waiting with measured hope for Antoniak to fulfill that ambitious promise in her next turn behind the camera.