Dir: Erik Poppe. Norway-Sweden. 2008. 90 mins.
A sensitive, slow-build script, original directorial vision and bravura performances turn what might have been just another high-concept melodrama centring on the death of a child into a highly-charged ride that is both gritty and poetic. Eric Poppe's third film is by no means perfect: the split point-of-view structure lacks balance at times, and a neat 'mirror' ending probably worked better on the page than it does on the screen.
But Troubled Water does deliver a hefty emotional punch. At home in Norway, Poppe's drama is heading towards the $1m mark after five weeks - a respectable haul for such a dark indie product. The film has been optioned for an American remake, but there's no reason why the original shouldn't score international arthouse hits in the meantime.
In his first film role, Pal Sverre Valheim Hagen invests his character, Jan, with intense, nuanced depths, mixing guilt with cockiness, reserve with flashes of joy, always keeping the audience guessing about his character's real internal motivations.
Fresh out of prison, Jan is a haunted young man, burdened by the perception that he is a child killer - though he has always claimed that the death of a five-year old boy during a botched adolescent pram- and bag-snatch was an accident (slowly dosed-out flashbacks fill in the events of that day). A talented organist, Jan (who begins using his second name, Thomas, to avoid jogging people's memories) secures a job at an Oslo church presided over by pretty pastor Anna (Petersen), a single mother with a young son whom Jan initially avoids.
But Jan gradually warms to Jens and his mother, and she responds, her spiritual interest in this damaged young man - who has concealed the whole truth about his past from his new employers - gradually turning to emotional involvement. Meanwhile, Agnes (Dyrholm), the mother of the boy who died, recognises her child's supposed killer during a visit to the church.
Scriptwriter Rosenlow presents the story initially from Jan's point of view, then, leaving a moment of crisis hanging, backtracks to cover the same time frame from Agnes' perspective - with their joint scenes repeated from different camera angles. The device is effective on one level, shifting our sympathies from the victimised Jan to the woman who has seen every mother's worst nightmare come true; but although Dyrholm is compelling, it's Jan's story which carries most of the film's dramatic interest, and we keep yearning to get back to it.
Director Poppe and DoP Rosenlund work together effectively to provide visual equivalents for the turmoil, with blurred focus, obtrusive backlighting and impressionistic underwater scenes. Sometimes, as in a restaurant scene in the Agnes section, Poppe's instinctive approach carries him off course, but mostly it works, adding a poetic dimension that sees the beauty and humanity in a savage tale.
Casa Nova Filmcompany
Bavaria Film International
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Stein B Kvae
Harald Rosenlow Eeg
Harald Rosenlow Eeg
John Christian Rosenlund
Pal Sverre Valheim Hagen
Ellen Dorrit Petersen
Trond Espen Seim