Int’l Critics Line: Todd McCarthy On Norway’s Oscar-Shortlisted ‘Hope’

Manuel Claro

Norwegian director Maria Sodhal made her first feature, Limbo, a decade ago and her second makes the reason for the long time gap dramatically clear: She developed lung cancer, which then metastasized and spread to her brain, a virtual death sentence. But she fought back and lived to make a film about it, the closely observed Hope, which is all she had going for her as she faced almost certain oblivion. It’s grim stuff, to be sure, but the innumerable intimate details and shifting moods keep Norway’s International Feature Oscar shortlist title percolating with the things of life.

“This is my story as I remember it,” states Anja (Andrea Braein Hovig), 43, a choreographer who a year earlier had undergone a lung cancer operation. The later diagnosis comes the day before Christmas, when Anja’s large family is to gather together, led by her longtime companion Tomas (Stellan Skarsgard), a prominent theater director some 15 years older, plus six children between them and her dad. Even though she’ll need a high dose of steroids to avoid brain death, hospital specialists are mostly away over the holidays and she prefers to keep the news from her family. But to Tomas she confides, “It feels like I’ve known it for ages,” then shortly adding, “When I’m gone, I want you to find someone new.”

The subsequent days are alternately filled with holiday rounds and hospital visits, the latter pressing due to the urgency of her situation. Although Tomas is there for Anja and doing what he must, the mood is clouded by the fact that their relationship is not as tight as it might be. “We’re useless at sticking together,” she admits, “we always have been,” and in Skarsgard’s shrewd performance one observes a man consciously doing his duty under the most adverse of conditions while still not being what one might call entirely present. “You choose the life you get to a great degree,” Anja’s father intones.

Christmas Day involves some partying and even, on Anja’s part, the instigation of lovemaking, although her momentary bliss is immediately followed by a breakdown into uncontrolled crying. Might this be the last time?, one can’t help but think she’s thinking.

Sodhal’s film is filled with such telling little moments, and Anja’s persistence in exploring all possibilities for even the slightest hope pays off two days after Christmas with a visit to an old doctor, who allows that he’s seen a small number of patients who made it through the same ordeal to survive. Meanwhile, Tomas tracks down the best neurosurgeon in Norway, who says that, since Anja’s CT scans are clean, her condition just might be operable.

With surgery set for January 2, Anja enters a limbo period of not knowing whether she’ll be dead within three weeks or, just perhaps, be one of the very few lucky ones. All the details, be they quivering emotional nuances, the desire of the oldest kid to escape the death-watch environment or the victim’s fluctuations from resolve to despair, are fleetingly captured but not indulged.

On very short notice, Tomas and Anja decide — finally — to get married, on New Year’s Eve, no less, which sets up the grim possibility of one wedding and a funeral. After some last-minute hysterics on Anja’s part, everyone packs into a small chapel that couldn’t be more storybook, except that she doesn’t know whether in two days she’ll be a happy heroine or facing the grim reaper.

With all its emotional roller-coaster ups and downs, Hope could have been pitched in a far more melodramatic manner, which would likely have been Hollywood’s way. Sodhal’s comparatively stoic approach, especially as regards Tomas’ bearing through the ordeal, gives the film a more even-tempered feel, which is actually refreshing as it helps avoid more familiar and predictable scenes of woe-is-me despair.

Given the autobiographical nature of the piece, it’s bracing to see a life-or-death story handled with this combination of intimate emotion and stoic detachment. This plays right into Skarsgard’s wheelhouse, while Hovig gets to do most of the emoting. Cinematographer Manuel Alberto Claro gets up close and personal with the actors in a fluidly urgent manner.

One early viewer of the film was Nicole Kidman, who was so taken with it that she has arranged to star in and executive produce a TV series remake at Amazon.

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