Stellan Skarsgård co-stars in a strong Scandinavian drama about love and illness
Dir/scr: Maria Sødahl. Norway. 2019. 126mins.
Anja (Andrea Brӕin Hovig) has survived three children, a slowly stultifying marriage and a tumultuous career in the arts. But then a Christmas Eve doctor’s appointment reveals something she probably will not survive: a reoccurrence of the cancer she thought she had beaten back, and a new, malignant brain tumour. Incurable, the physician calmly explains.
Sødahl, who first gained attention with 2010’s Limbo, is an artist of quiet, disciplined observance
That scene unfolds within the first few minutes of the film Hope, and you’d be forgiven if you read the title as bitterly ironic. But Anja and her family face the uncertainty that lies ahead filled more with sad resilience than despair.
Although this carefully made, subtitled drama is unlikely to find mainstream success after its Toronto premiere, it should discover a satisfied audience among older arthouse patrons and loyal fans of co-star Stellan Skarsgård.
The film is very much the story of Anja’s journey, though, over one extraordinarily dramatic holiday week. Much of her immediate struggle is simply finding answers to her medical questions, with much of what she’s hearing blithely contradictory. One surgeon holds out a slim chance, talking about a complicated procedure that has had some success; another basically advises her to get her affairs in order and go home to die. Red tape and officiousness abounds. (What isn’t present, and is sure to shock American audiences, is any discussion of money; at no time does Anja have to worry about the cost of treatment.)
But while Anja is navigating the twists and turns of modern health care, there’s another journey she has to take – finding a resolution to her relationship with her partner, Tomas (Skarsgård). They’ve lived together for years, with Anja not only having three children with him but assuming the maternal care of three older step-kids. Yet they never married, for reasons Anja can’t quite explain, and in recent years they’ve grown distant, two people who share a lovely apartment and similar careers in the arts, but little else. Will this sudden crisis bring them together? And if took an incurable illness to do it, is that even a connection worth having?
Hope, meanwhile, provides its own union, a warm gathering of Scandinavian artists, with Sweden’s Skarsgård and Norway’s Hovig both excelling under Norwegian director Maria Sødahl’s attentive care. Their swings of emotion – from surly silences to tender handholding to frantic, almost hostile lovemaking – are all painfully real and carefully captured. A late-in-the-drama scene, in which they simply look each other in the eye, reveals more about their feelings than any overwrought dialogue ever could.
But then Sødahl, who first gained attention with 2010’s Limbo, is an artist of quiet, disciplined observance. Like the first, striking films of Danish cinema’s Dogme 95 movement, her film uses no music. There are no elaborate sets, or particularly showy edits or camerawork. Instead, Sødahl observes as gender and birth-order dynamics play out, with Anja’s small sons suddenly needy and attentive, her teenage daughter still struggling with confusion and rebellion. As physicians hide behind a clinical, but emotionally necessary, distance and bureaucrats stick stubbornly to questions of policy. As handwringing friends wonder what to do at all. And as a woman, given perhaps three more months to live, wonders what kind of life she’s been living.
Production companies: Motlys
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Producer: Thomas Robsahm
Production design: Jørgen Stangebye Larsen
Editing: Christian Siebenherz
Cinematography: Manuel Alberto Claro
Main cast: Stellan Skarsgård, Andrea Brӕin Hovig, Elli Rhiannon Müller Osbourne, Eirik Hallert