Scandinavians know how to draw out operatic misery from quotidian life, and Hope, filmmaker Maria Sødahl’s masterful take on a couple in crisis, illustrates just how effective delving into the misery of brokenness can be.
We meet Anja (Andrea Bræin Hovig), a ballet director who is finally finding her own success after many years of living in the shadow of her husband. Tomas (Stellan Skarsgård) is an esteemed theatre director, often away from home chasing his own projects, making for a complicated schedule between the spouses. They have three children together, along with two of Tomas’ from a previous marriage, and live a kind of upper-middle class family life with its usual challenges.
But Anja is soon diagnosed with a tumor, connected with a lung cancer diagnosis she received the Christmas before. (The story is based on Sødahl’s own real-life experience being diagnosed with brain cancer several years ago.) Anja confides in her husband, whose shock doesn’t immediately come with quite the sympathy expected. Her children, living their own lives and oblivious to their newly-ill mother, come across as selfish and unfeeling.
Thus begins a story of love and acceptance, one where quiet moments of panic and larger episodes of anger, frustration, and fear cloud the family. Hovig and Skarsgård are masterful in their dynamic, providing near-documentary levels of believability to their characters. The dance between acceptance of the vagaries of fate and that even more complex emotion which gives the film its title pulls the characters apart, making for some moving and often harrowing moments that feel firmly rooted in reality.
Hope as a concept is often blind, a coping mechanism by which one wishes that the impossible, or at least improbable, will occur. Yet as Sødahl’s film demonstrates, hope also illustrates a strength of character, a fight for a future that may be uncertain but is certainly better than the pessimistic or fatalistic alternative. Despite everything, it can be the hardest thing to hope not out of blindness, but out of a refusal to passively to give in – to rail in favor of something better instead.
Like many great works of cinema from this region, Hope is a character drama with deep psychological and philosophical impact, a story that feels particularly resonant as one gets older, one’s relationships calcify, and one is closer to the end than the beginning. Thanks to some fantastic performances and a patient, well-crafted script, this is a film that should find international audiences interested in some truly adult storytelling. There’s enough originality and sophistication here that an English language redux wouldn’t be unheard of, making one hope that any translation maintains the craft and elegance of Sødahl’s presentation.
/Film Review: 7.5 out of 10
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