Clean Hands (Schone handen)

Netherlands (2015) Dir. Tjebbo Penning

“For better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, till death do us part.”

This is part of the common declaration a bride and groom are asked to make when they get married, to confirm their everlasting commitment to one another. It doesn’t always work out that way, and for some there are certain caveats simply too insurmountable for them to keep this union alive.

Sylvia (Thekla Reuten) and Eddie Kronenburg (Jeroen van Koningsbrugge) enjoy a lush and affluent lifestyle which they share with their two kids Daphne (Bente Fokkens) and Yuri (Nino den Brave). As far as the kids are concerned, Eddie runs a shipping business; the truth however is he is a drug dealer with notorious connections, one of whom he is in debt to.

When the husband of Sylvia’s best friend and colleague of Eddie’s is murdered, Eddie is the police’s top suspect and whilst Sylvia gives him an alibi she knows Eddie was involved and decides to leave him taking the kids with her. As Eddie starts to feel the stress of trying to call in debts to pay off his own, a rival gang wants to take over Eddie’s pitch, making Eddie more unstable and pushing Sylvia further away.

Based on the novel by René Appel Clean Hands could have been set in any country which immediately negates the Nordic Noir/Scandi Crime label we’d usually attach to it since it come from the Netherlands. In other words, there is little beyond the native language that distinguishes it from any other crime drama of recent years, and this lack of identity will make it difficult for this film to stand out from the crowd.

That is not to impugn the effort that has gone into it and it can still be enjoyed as a pacey and gritty crime drama. However, one facet of the Nordic/Scandi movement that makes it the unique subgenre it is which is sorely lacking here is the writing. Whether it is the source material or the adapted screenplay by Carl Joos and director Tjebbo Penning, the twisted, cerebral manipulation of the audience through the sinuous, tight plotting is absent to leave us with a rather pedestrian outing with little in the way of surprises.

Perhaps the most important flaw in the narrative comes from this dearth of meticulous construct involving Sylvia. Being a mother scared for her children and wanting to spare them from whatever fate might be coming as a result of their father’s misdeeds is a perfectly naturally instinct – but as Eddie points out to Sylvia, she was more than happy to live the life of Riley on his tainted wealth.

Straight away, we find ourselves at odds with Sylvia’s sudden change of conscience, seeing as her silence and acceptance of the money makes her equally complicit even if she doesn’t personally get her hands dirty. Opening the film with the family enjoying a day at the beach then a family barbecue show us no signs of Sylvia being forced to indulge in her accustomed lifestyle, leaving us to brand her a hypocrite before Eddie does.

Had she been something of a reluctant bride or maybe even married to Eddie before his criminal life then her moral stance would pass scrutiny – since nothing like this has been established, Sylvia has little credibility or right to stand in judgement of her husband, despite her intentions towards protecting her children being completely honourable and justified.  

Eddie also undergoes a personality change as the pressure mounts, hitting the bottle and popping pills as soon a Sylvia leaves and his debtors can’t pay the money they owe him which he needs to pay of his masters. Prior to this, Eddie has been portrayed as caring, loving family man who might enjoy the odd beer but certainly not with a problem, again creating unnatural hasten in his decent into dependency.

Luckily the real bad guys – at the top of the list is the enigmatically monikered The Silent (Jim van der Woude), a menacing old school, East End type gangster who doesn’t speak – are nasty people and their threats know no boundaries, at one point shooting at Eddie whilst Yuri is in the car with him. This temporarily shifts Eddie from antagonist to protagonist but his actions towards Sylvia soon bring him back to the bad side again.

If the adults are complex characters through maladroit scripting the children fare much better for being the genuine victims of their parents deceit and this horrible mess they have unwillingly been thrown into. At various points after the news spreads about Eddie’s work among local circles, the naïve children are in trouble for fighting kids calling their dad a criminal, which to them he wasn’t.

The more the chaos get out on control the further Sylvia separates herself and the kids from Eddie, the more why wonder why. Daphne is unfortunate enough to have witnessed Eddie beating a debtor which sways her towards Sylvia whilst Yuri is more steadfastly in his absent dad’s corner. This throws a few spanners into Sylvia’s plans for a smooth getaway knowing she can’t tell Yuri the truth, him being too young to understand.

Once we get past the confused character issues and rushed storytelling a competent if uneven thriller reveals itself and the cast do their best to rise above these shortcomings. Thekla Reuten manages to get Sylvia onside as the protective if hypocritical mother and Jeroen van Koningsbrugge is suitably intense as Eddie. Support is solid but no-one other than the family are fleshed out beyond their relevance to the plot.

Clean Hands doesn’t offer anything particularly new to the crime thriller oeuvre but the story has the potential to be explored in depth with a revision of the characters’ attitudes over a three or four part TV series, which perhaps is what the novel does. It’s a nicely shot, well-paced, often brutal, sometimes frustrating serviceable distraction for 103-minutes, nothing more, nothing less.