Strong leads propel Amsterdam’s exploration of mystery and meaning between World Wars

All-star cast fuels humour-rich period piece

Where: In theatres
What: Movie, 134 mins.
When: Fri., Oct. 7
Genre: dramatic comedy
Why you should watch: In a movie that depicts a moment of history that doesn’t often get the Hollywood treatment, Christian Bale delivers a delicious performance as a First World War veteran and doctor working to help fellow veterans in 1930s New York. We follow Bale’s unpretentious Burt across continents and through posh mansions as he becomes an unlikely investigator when he gets thrust into a murder mystery that swiftly turns into a political plot. Full of all your favourite stars, Amsterdam is fun time!

There have been many movies made about the Second World War, from drama to farce to high-concept action. The First World War, that “war to end all wars,” has had its share (even if not fair) of silver-screen depictions, with All Quiet on the Western Front capturing hearts at its premiere at this year’s Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) — and now on Netflix.

But precious little has been depicted in modern cinema of that strange and turbulent time between the two wars, a span of about 20 years wherein people dealt with the aftermath of one of the deadliest wars history had seen until that point, and attempted to carve out meaning under the lambasting glare of The Great Depression. David O. Russell’s Amsterdam ameliorates this paucity as it traces the windings of a little-known event from this moment in time, uncovering the attempts of three American friends who themselves work to uncover a strange plot.

Loosely based on actual events, Amsterdam delivers a couple of stellar performances as it handles its subject matter shrewdly. With a cunning sense of humour at some points and the sobriety the moment deserves at others, the movie shines a tender light on a part of history few might be familiar with. It ultimately draws a direct line between the two World Wars and entertains as much as it educates.

The film begins at breakneck pace as a whodunit. Christian Bale leads an impressive ensemble cast as Burt Berendsen, a physician and First World War veteran who, alongside his best friend, lawyer and also a veteran Harold Woodman (John David Washington), works to uncover the culprit behind the murder of his and Harold’s platoon leader. They are aided in their efforts by the effervescent Valerie Voze (Margot Robbie). The plot swiftly takes a turn toward the dire and sinister — the political — as the three friends learn that more insidious, fascist forces are afoot. It’s a compelling turn the script takes and certainly works in the film’s favour as it ups the stakes and builds occasion for the potentially dizzying rotation of its all-star cast: Rami Malek, Anya Taylor-Joy, Mike Myers, Michael Shannon, Robert De Niro, Chris Rock and even Taylor Swift.

Bale and Robbie offer stunning performances that serve effectively to orient viewers as the various supporting characters move through the story. Burt is warm and sweet, his smile and encumbered gait welcoming to the effect he keeps us invested in his character’s well-being, and by extension the complex plot against the American people. Bale infuses his performance with a kind of naivety his previous characters seldom possess; Burt feels lived in, with Bale wearing the character in every limb, unafraid to be goofy or to allow for his co-stars to share equal space with him on screen. His scenes with surgeon Irma St. Clair (Zoe Saldaña) feel alive and precious, Burt’s eyes (or perhaps eye, for he lost one eye during the war), which look at nefarious characters with an opaque glint of disbelief, look upon Irma with a kind, molten warmth, a shy respect, and at times, with that wide and saccharine Gene Kelly-esque smile.

Robbie, too, is deeply captivating as she dives wholly into Valerie, a bohemian artist who longs for the carefree days she, Harold and Burt spent in Amsterdam, dancing and singing and creating meaningful art. Valerie has a nostalgic desire and simultaneously utilitarian and romantic reasonings for helping Harold and Burt — so that they may solve the plot and then be free to return to those sweet Amsterdam days. Robbie is vivacious and wonderfully reminiscent of Rachel Weisz’s Penelope in Rian Johnson’s The Brothers Bloom.

The script, also written by Russell (who has been making headlines in recent days with allegations of abuse and workplace unprofessionalism), is whip-smart and cunning, using Bale and Robbie to their full potential to infuse a kind of humour — physical and lyrical — into a story that could easily have become melodramatic without it.

It’s refreshing, this sense of humour, kind and in the know when the camera is directed at Burt and Harold’s fellow veterans, and ridiculing when it is turned toward the seedy and grimy bad guys. The film seems to have a shrewd understanding of the systematic maltreatment of veterans, particularly in the ’20s and ’30s, and critiques this treatment with gimlet-eyed tact through Bale’s Burt, Washington’s jaded Harold, and Chris Rock’s skeptical Milton King.

Ultimately, Amsterdam is a fun little-big movie that rejoices in its all-star cast, having old-timey fun (dramatic character reveals abound!) as it introduces its slew of stars, as if understanding and celebrating their celebrity. This is an entertaining take on the war picture, showing a slice of American history Hollywood often neglects. Watch it for Bale’s warm performance and for Robbie’s physical comedy.