“Niki, my darling, I thought about you all last night. That’s more or less how a love letter begins. Isn’t it, Niki? ” – Norman Harris
UPDATE 08/14/2020: It is THAT time of the year again 😀 While I have been living in the US for the last 24 years, I come back to my native Turkey every summer to visit my mom and my extended family. And while I thought I would not be able to travel to Turkey this summer due to Covid-19 pandemic, here I am in Izmir, my hometown, after an adventurous flight…
…and I will enjoy my time with family, the sun, and the blue waters of the beautiful Aegean sea as soon as my quarantine is over.
And while in Izmir, I cannot help think of a Damian Lewis movie which, in fact, starts in Izmir! So, it is sort of inevitable to share this post every summer.
Have you seen Brides (Nyfes) yet?
Brides (Nyfes) is a 2004 movie directed by celebrated Greek Director Pantelis Voulgaris and starring Damian Lewis and Victoria Haralabidou in the lead roles. The movie premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival in 2004, and won the Best Film Award at the Greek State Film Awards, a part of the Thessaloniki International Film Festival in 2004. It is available for purchase on Amazon.
Brides is a subtle, sad and beautiful story of impossible love between Norman Harris, an American photographer, and Niki Douka, a Greek seamstress. It is also a moving tale of women that need to put tradition, duty and sacrifice before love. The central love story as well as the subplots resonate strongly with me; however, I choose to focus on Norman and Niki’s love story in this post.
It’s 1922. We first meet Norman in Smyrna, Turkey. I wrote about it earlier here but in case you missed it, I am from Smyrna, born and raised (Izmir in modern day Turkey): a beautiful city on Turkey’s West Coast with a rich Greek heritage that reflects itself in all ways of life which I LOVE.
So Norman is supposedly — they filmed the entire movie in Greece — in my hometown, with a camera in hand, calling a group of kids in Turkish:
“Cocuklar! (Hey, Kids!)”
May I just say it’s so sweet hearing Damian say a word in my native tongue? He plays with the children and ties a piece of cloth to a wish tree with them! We find out he is in Smyrna for work, taking war photos from the Greco – Turkish war. However, they find his photos “too artsy to publish” and so Norman, quite frustrated, sells his camera to a colleague and is ready to board on a ship that will take him back home to Detroit, and to his troubled marriage.
The ship S.S. Alexander that will take Norman to New York is full of “mail-order brides” going to America for arranged marriages, a little known, true event. These young women, some of whom are barely teenagers — Greek, Turkish, Russian, Armenian — marry pictures in front a priest or an imam and then board on a ship to go meet their new husbands in America.
One of these brides is Niki (Haralabidou), a young seamstress from Samothrace, a Greek Island in Northern Aegean Sea. She is one of seven cousins at marrying age — all orphans who need to marry to survive financially and there are not a lot of men left for them to marry because of the on-going war. Niki’s family marries her older sister Eleni off to Prodromos, a Greek tailor in Chicago, and ships her off to Chicago for her new life. However, Eleni cannot stand life in America, cries day and night, and Prodromos sends her back… Now, the family, to save its honor, chooses Niki, a strong girl that they know will be able to survive and be a good wife to Prodromos, too. The only thing Eleni has to say about Prodromos is he is “a very honest man” and Niki’s response says it all: “Love is for idlers, Eleni. I can do without it.”
Now… I would LOVE you to see the movie and enjoy it so I don’t really want to give spoilers… But since I am dying to talk about this most romantic Damian Lewis character ever, I need to do some spoiling without giving the entire story away… So… if you don’t want to know anything, STOP reading here, go get a copy of Brides and read this review once you meet Mr. Harris!
Last chance to jump ship! 🙂
Well… Niki catches Norman’s eye before they board on S. S. Alexander. As he is killing time at a coffee shop waiting to board, Norman notices this young woman and gives her a look that all of us would want some guy to give us in our lifetimes 🙂 Even the military march being played at the moment — a constant reminder of the war and its consequences such as orphans, poverty and mail-order brides — cannot spoil the FIRST LOOK between the two of them. And I know that if you did not stop reading, you will stop reading once you see this scene and go and get a copy of Brides — guaranteed!
Norman is traveling first-class where as all 700 brides are in third-class. Now… Just because the movie has a first class and a third class passenger falling for each other, you may envision this love story a Titanic of sorts… Don’t! One of the first things you notice about Brides is the contrast between Hollywood and European Cinema in story telling… Brides is an art-house movie. It’s subtle. It’s slow. It’s quiet. It’s poetic. It’s a wonderfully shot and told LOVE story — love lived through looks, gestures and a few words only… And even though the movie does not have a love scene as we know it, it has some of the most poetic love scenes I have ever seen.
Once the ship sails, we see one of the most heart-breaking scenes in any movie. Hundreds of women taking a last look at what they are leaving behind for good…
It gives me the creeps just to stop for a second and think about what they must be feeling at that very moment. They all know for a fact they will never see this land again, and more importantly, they will never see their families again. They are young and so full of hope but then they don’t know what kind of a husband is waiting for them in America, either… And, hey, what is America anyway? Olga, a young Russian woman prays to God: “Make America beautiful. Make it look like Russia.” They must be so deeply scared. It’s a situation that is quite incomprehensible for most of us, isn’t it? However, arranged marriages in one form or another are still norm rather than exception in many parts of the world… It’s always been hard and it is hard and it will always be hard to be a woman in this world… Sigh. But yeah I was saying I would write about something romantic, right? 🙂
FIRST WORDS between Norman and Niki… Norman, frustrated with his work, is tearing his photos and throwing them to third class deck late at night. Niki tells him not to tear them down again. It turns out the only photo she has in her house is her father in his coffin and all the family around him. Many people have their only photograph when they are dead on her island. Norman is intrigued by this spirited, hard-working and stubborn young woman. He helps her take a sewing job in the first class. And Niki gives Norman his new project when he tells her he likes to take photos of things others pass over: Norman will now take pictures of the 699 young brides in their wedding gowns or in his own words “snow in summer!” Why 699? Because Niki says she does not need one.
The two spend time together. Norman gives Niki a book. She gives him black olives from her village. They talk about their parents. He shows her the magic of making photos. He finds out she has never got any love letters… They just can’t help falling for each other; yet, Niki is not a daydreamer… When a woman wants to read her “kismet” on her palm she goes: “No need. I know mine.” Niki does not dream about eloping with Norman, or her future romantic life with Prodromos. Her only dream is about nice fabrics, a lot of customers and a Singer Machine!
But even the strongest woman may lose control of her emotions when our Norman is concerned 🙂 As the two are standing on the deck looking at the stars, Niki tells Norman about her wedding dress and its travels across the Atlantic: “My godmother in ’99, my sister 1921, and me 1922. Back and forth.. Back and forth… Very unlucky dress.” She just sits down with her face in her hands… And they have their FIRST KISS. Well, it’s not real a kiss, but I would absolutely call it so. See and decide for yourself!
Kiss or not, Niki now wants to “live here for a second” with Norman. She doesn’t just let him tie her shoe but take her photo in her wedding dress… and the two actors together create one of the most poetic scenes I have ever seen! It absolutely feels like their wedding day. Norman is astonished… enchanted… He’s a bridegroom that cannot take his eyes off his bride on their wedding day. The way Niki leaves her headdress on his camera and the way Norman takes and wears it around his neck is, for me, nothing less than them saying their “I Do”s. And we once more see how less is always more with Damian. He is PERFECT.
Later that night her friend Haro tells Niki she sees the love between her and Norman. “That is all there is…” she says. “Go away with him, Niki.” LOVE is all there is… It’s too late for Haro but not for Niki. Haro is inconsolable. She is on this ship just because her father marries her off to some man in America but she loves another… Haro chooses death and jumps into the dark waters which I suspect some viewers may find too sentimental. But this kind of story always brings tears to my eyes. Maybe because I am from that part of the world and I personally know women in my extended family that had been married off to men they really did not love just because their families gave promises. And just thinking about how many people, mostly women, had to choose (and still have to choose) duty over love is simply sad.
Norman makes his last move and says “I love you” to Niki hours before they arrive in America. But NO. Niki MUST go to Chicago and fulfill the marriage contract. “It’s a matter of honor to my family… If I come with you, my family will have a bad name, no marriage for my sisters and cousins… too many women depend on me.” This is her duty. Her sacrifice.
So Norman sits and writes the one and only love letter Niki will probably get in her life and gives her all brides’ pictures with his letter hidden among them… And Niki gives him her earring to remember her by… They really KISS for the first and the last time.
And me… In tears every time I see this movie because I just cannot accept the way the story ends. I am old enough to know life is not fair but I just can’t help it.
You know we believe in Fan Fiction to correct what should not have happened in the first place! In our Homeland Fan Fiction, for example, we have Carrie and Brody completely in love and living happily ever after. Why not? So, why not Norman and Niki somehow find each other and fall in love all over again at some point ? My imagination is going a bit wild now. Hehe. And I know Fan Fiction can help me with this… Can anyone help me with it? 😀