“It’s not a punishment to remember someone you love. The punishment is to forget.”
In 1922 many ships set sail from Europe to New York, with their precious cargo of hundreds of ‘proxy brides’ – women arranged to be married to strangers in a land with a better supply of men than their own. Following the passage of one such ship, we learn of the trials of such a journey, and the risks of manipulation and corruption of the process. What would make someone agree to such a thing? Brides is a story from a different time, but speaks to the primal need to retain one’s culture, one’s sense of self, no matter the cost.
Niki Douka (Victoria Haralabidou) is one such Bride, one of eleven sisters of marrying age from a poor family in Samothrace in Greece. She hopes only to preserve her family’s honour – her elder sister has tried and failed to remain married to Niki’s intended – protect her sister, and send home some coloured pencils for another sister.
Norman Harris (Damian Lewis) is an American photographer, returning home to an unhappy marriage himself. He is immediately drawn to Niki, impressed by her resolve and her quiet strength. Niki is capable, independent, and yet resigned to her fate in life. She has no hope of love – ‘what good is love?’ she asks. Their developing relationship is the heart of this film, and it is beautifully handled.
Obviously, an expedition such as this is wrought with difficulty – the women are exposed to all kinds of potential risks. The journey itself, with its attendant illnesses, and the possibility of corruption of those who arrange such marriages as their business. The subplots – particularly the one with the Russian businessman Karaboulat (Steven Berkoff) and his manipulation of his charges into the sex trade – are less well handled, and almost seem to distract one unnecessarily from what should be the focus… the quiet, desperate, illicit love that is developing between Niki and Norman.
Voulgaris has such an eye for detail, and realises that the expression of their hidden feelings can only be through small acts. Norman’s eventual demonstration of love is a simple one, and yet it is the reversal of their relative status that is important. Voulgaris allows us such an insight into Norman’s mind without heavy-handed scripting, but simply through a small act of kindness, and yet the import is immediately clear.
The performances of Haralabidou and Lewis are excellent, with Niki especially being brought to true life. She is given such depth, with such nuance, that one feels one knows her completely. Haralabidou has done an extraordinary job. Lewis also excels, and it seems likely we will be seeing more of him in films to come. Formerly best known for his role in Steven Spielberg’s ‘Band of Brothers’ mini series, he has several film roles due for release in 2005/6. His handsome appearance, coupled with the obvious skill he displays in Brides should mean he is offered more roles of such substance.
The quiet, almost languid, pace that this film develops at suits it well, although there are moments that could perhaps have been more expeditiously dealt with. At 128 minutes, Brides is a little long for such a simple tale, and maybe had the subplots been less bulky, we could have been left with a shorter more focused piece. That said, the cinematography is wonderful, and the direction and performances generally superb, and the combination makes Brides a very worthwhile experience.Rating: