Anja looks pained, stricken. And Tomas picks up on that as they take their coats off at a Christmas party.
“If it gets tough, we’ll stick together,” he offers. It’s already gotten “tough.” And he isn’t just talking about this dinner party. She has cancer. Her prognosis is awful.
But as we’ve seen the state of their relationship, we wonder — as she must — if he’s as good as his word or if he’s just expressing platitudes of “Hope.”
Norway’s short-list contender for the Best International Feature Oscar is an intimate drama in which two stars, Andrea Bræin Hovig and Stellan Skarsgård, put on a clinic of how to play people used to deadlines, pressures from all sides, facing the worst thing any of us face — the end.
Anja is a famous choreographer, Tomas is a playwright. They’ve been together for years, have three children together with three others from his first marriage. But work has dominated their lives and thoughts, especially with him. He wasn’t there for her latest opening night. He even skipped out on his assignment for the evening, child care, “letting the older ones look after the younger.”
And now she’s gotten a callback on the MRI she went in for about her persistent, unshakeable headache. For once, Tomas has to drop everything and show up. He is the one who weeps at the news.
Christmas is two days off. Then New Year’s. Getting medical treatments in the works, even medical advice, is tricky. How will they tell the kids? Her elderly father, who lives with them? They want counseling for that.
There are parties planned, New Year’s is coming, and giving everyone “a nice Christmas” passes back and forth between them.
As they maintain their best poker faces and scramble to hit their medical marks, start medication and “jump the line” for possible surgery, there’s barely a moment to consider the blunt “I’m sorry” they get from the few on-duy medical professionals who cannot help them, much less wholly absorb that unblinking diagnosis from her oncologist.
Screenwriter-director Maria Sødahl paints a picture a big family in the dark and two parents who don’t communicate well in the best of times rushing into action, between consultations, scrambling to find a way and a moment to tell their family and friends this awful news. When they finally find someone who can guide them, his advice resonates with sound psychology and empathetic common sense.
“I often say you should give your children 10% more hope than you give yourself,” he advises (in Norwegian, with English subtitles).
The estimable Skarsgård shows us a man who has to shed some of his self-absorbed tendencies, just this once. The looks on his face tell us he’s not sure he’s up to it. For a moment here and there, we see Tomas wounded and deflated by everything he’s ever done to let Anya down, a string of petty inconsiderations that pile up as this logjam of half-a-dozen days unfolds, with more and more “events” packed into them as they go.
Veteran Norwegian actress Bræin Hovig rushes through the Stages of Death and Dying, giving up and regaining “Hope,” losing her temper at Tomas and callous medicos who aren’t as polished at showing concern over her situation as she needs them to be. The film isn’t a full-bore “weeper,” but she has a couple of absolutely gut-punching scenes dealing with her personal crisis and trying to leave something with meaning to their fragile, impressionable 16-year-old daughter (Elli Rhiannon).
As their lives, their relationship and their family closes in around them, will they “stick together,” with or without “hope?”
Bræin Hovig and Skarsgård take us into their confidence as they make these choices, decisions, promises and compromises. The wonder of “Hope” is how much of that they do without dialogue, just with a look, a gesture, a silent scream of despair or teeth grinding in resignation.
MPA Rating: unrated, adult situations, nudity, smoking
Cast: Andrea Bræin Hovig, Stellan Skarsgård, Elli Rhiannon and Gjertrud L. Jynge,
Credits: Directed and scripted by Maria Sødahl, A KimStim/Picturehouse release opening April 11.
Running time: 2:008