Bride Flight soars with youthful hope in postwar New Zealand

Half an hour into the richly layered Dutch saga “Bride Flight,” you’d never imagine that a menorah would become the film’s most affecting and enduring symbol.

At that point, we’re scarcely aware there’s a Jewish character in this first-rate romantic drama, which centers on a quartet of 20-something Dutch émigrés starting new lives in New Zealand in 1953. Indeed, we learn soon after that that character, a stylish young woman named Esther, has no interest in being tethered to a Jewish tradition that, for her, reached its nadir a decade earlier during the Holocaust.

Marieke van der Pol’s worldly and wise screenplay beautifully integrates the Jewish thread into a captivating and overwhelmingly scenic story of fresh starts, fraught friendships, concealed parentage and paths not taken.

“Bride Flight,” which premiered locally in the East Bay International Jewish Film Festival in March, opens June 10 in Bay Area theaters.

Frank (Waldemar Torenstra) befriends Esther (Anna Drijver) and two other Dutch émigrés on a plane ride to New Zealand in “Bride Flight.”

The 2008 movie, finally receiving a limited U.S. theatrical release, is framed by a present-day reunion of three of the characters at the funeral of the fourth. The heart of the story lies in how they came to be so intertwined in the 1950s and early ’60s, amid a succession of fateful and heartrending choices.

The three women and a man meet on a KLM airliner racing from London to New Zealand and carrying a bevy of high-spirited passengers bound for greener pastures. And, of course, love and adventure.

The dark-haired Esther (Anna Drijver), an aspiring fashion designer, and her pal Marjorie (Elise Schaap) chat up Frank (Waldemar Torenstra), a dapper, handsome urbanite primed to take a stab at farming. (He will ultimately find success as a vintner.)

Frank is friendly and charming but is really attracted to a nervous blonde, Ada (Karina Smulders), who tells him — after a passionate kiss during a quick stopover in Karachi — that her future husband, whose child she is carrying, awaits her in New Zealand.

Both Frank and Ada are disappointed they can’t pursue their mutual attraction, not least because her mate turns out to be a cheap, insensitive and devoutly religious man.

The willfully independent Esther also has a man waiting for her upon arrival in Christchurch, but she’s in no rush to settle down with him. Her first night in New Zealand is spent in Frank’s arms, an eyes-open tryst that ends with his morning bus to the country. But they are forever linked in a way he’ll never know.

Dutch director Ben Sombogaart, who also helmed the soapy 2003 Jewish-themed drama “Twin Sisters,” depicts mid-20th-century women with unusual understanding and empathy. The scene where Esther rejects her fiancé, who likewise lost his entire family in the camps and imagines their home and children will be a manifestation of both Jewish tradition and renewal, provides one of the most powerful moments of the entire film.

But people are complicated, and unexpected developments can compel us to revise our most fervently held attitudes. In just a few years, Esther will surprise us with her attachment to a menorah. 

“Bride Flight” is populated by vivid, likable characters who only want the best for themselves and their loved ones. Imbued with the attitude that love and friendship can survive decades, it’s a generous and ultimately gentle movie.

“Bride Flight”
opens June 10 at a Landmark theater in San Francisco, the Shattuck in Berkeley and the Rafael Film Center in San Rafael.

Michael Fox

Michael Fox is a longtime film journalist and critic, and a member of the San Francisco Bay Area Film Critics Circle. He teaches documentary classes at the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute programs at U.C. Berkeley and S.F. State. In 2015, the San Francisco Film Society added Fox to Essential SF, its ongoing compendium of the Bay Area film community's most vital figures and institutions.