Despite the rallying cry of many a conservative, it’s impossible to deny that society as a whole has become vastly more liberal over the past 100 years or so. This, at least in part, can be seen by our slow acceptance of previously taboo topics in comedy.
For the most part this tends to centre around sex, violence and bad language, all three of which have vastly increased in comedies of recent decades; as well as topics such as toilet habits, LGBT issues, genocide etc. But even with such change there are still topics that can cause hesitation. It’s rare indeed to see a stand-up comedian willing to do jokes about child molestation, rape, and the most relevant to this review, euthanasia.
It’s therefore a credit to the actors, writers and crew that The Surprise never feels exploitative of a sensitive issue. Instead it takes said issue and creates one of the most fun romantic comedies in recent memory.
Depressed after the death of his mother (Elisabeth Andersen), millionaire Jacob van Zuylen de With (Jeroen van Koningsbrugge) decides to end it all and commit suicide.
Despite the best laid plans, every attempt Jacob makes either fails or is accidentally interrupted. But he soon discovers a secret organisation called Elysium. Known only to a few, the company assists individuals who wish to shuffle off their mortal coil.
While selecting his method of departure, Jacob meets Anne de Koning (Georgina Verbaan), a cute young lady who has also decided to bring her time upon this earth to an end. Together they select Elysium’s “surprise” package, a choice where the method and time of death is a complete mystery to the customer.
But soon Jacob and Anne start building a relationship, one which might have made their drastic decision slightly regrettable. However, Elysium have very strict rules. Once you’ve paid for their services, there is no going back.
Written by Mike van Diem and Karen van Holst Pellekaan, The Surprise could be interpreted as the exact opposite of a human lifespan. For us fleshy beings, we start from birth, before shouldering numerous burdens as we go through life. Then finally we meet death in what might as well be a perfect three act structure (so to speak). But in a compelling twist, this film instead starts with the embrace of death, before proceeding to let go of the burdens of life and ending with a beautiful (though metaphorical) birth.
Much of the film’s pathos is down to two things; the first being director / co-writer Mike van Diem. Amazingly The Surprise is only his second feature film, his first being 1997’s critically acclaimed Character, for which he won the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film. Despite his limited experience in features, Van Diem seems to have honed his craft through commercials. That expertise becomes most apparent in the numerous dialogue-free scenes that open the film and help establish the black comedy that lies ahead.
But if Van Diem is The Surprise’s brain, then it is undoubtedly the main duo themselves that form the beating heart of this romantic-comedy. And it can’t have been easy to keep things light considering the morbid subject matter. Having a meet-cute while discussing their impending deaths is definitely up there when it comes to unique first meetings. But Koningsbrugge and Verbaan absolutely make it work.
Alas, the high-concept approach of the first half isn’t quite sustained for the whole 100 minute running time; instead giving way to a more traditional romantic direction. Indeed there are moments where the film doesn’t quite successfully blend the absurd with the realistic. But in spite of that, the film always remembers to keep a soupçon of joy in every scene, especially as the leading couple come to terms with how much their lives have changed because of each other.
If anything, the biggest surprise is that a story about euthanasia could also be amazingly live-affirming.