'Key House Mirror' ('Nogle hus spejl'): Rotterdam Review

Courtesy of International Film Festival Rotterdam

Scandinavian veterans Ghita Norby and Sven Wollter star in Michael Noer's romantic drama from Denmark, opener of the Gothenburg Film Festival.

Danish drama's doughty doyenne Ghita Norby regally crowns her six-decade screen career in Michael Noer's quietly effective tale of twilight-years romance, Key House Mirror (Nogl hus spejl). The second solo feature for the director/co-writer—following 2013's gritty urban, teen-focused Northwest—it world-premiered as opener of the Gothenburg Film Festival a couple of days before bowing at Rotterdam. There, it nabbed the KNF Dutch critics' prize and also clicked with the public, ranking as the fifth most popular non-documentary in the Audience Award voting. Early signs thus augur well both for domestic box-office prospects and also abroad, where the universal tale could plausibly be positioned as an arthouse draw for mature audiences. Extensive festival play is a given, especially if, as seems likely, Norby's flintily affecting turn finds favor among award-juries.

Currently enjoying international exposure thanks to her fleeting but crucial cameo towards the end of Lisandro Alonso's enigmatic, critically-adored Jauja, Norby is by contrast seldom off camera for long in Noer's sensitively-observed chamber-piece set in an assisted-living facility right in the heart of affluent Copenhagen. As septuagenarian Lily, she spends most of her time caring for her older, much more frail husband of fifty years, Max (Jens Brenaa), who has been rendered mute and near-immobile by a stroke. Still relatively vigorous and independent, Lily also still has powerful emotional and even sexual needs which her spouse is obviously no longer able to satisfy. Enter silver fox Erik (Sven Wollter), a Swedish, tuba-playing former airline pilot whose vivacity matches Lily's own. But while the attraction between the two is palpable from the off, there are obstacles in the way of romance: Lily's guilt, compounded by her incipient Alzheimer's disease.

Erik isn't quite as robust as he first appears, either, though his Parkinson's tends to come and go depending on the requirements of the screenplay. That script is co-written by Anders Frithiof August—son of Bille, who directed Norby in 1992's Palme d'Or winning Ingmar Bergman adaptation Best Intentions. The quirkily titled Key House Mirror, which takes its name from the memory test that reveals the degree of Lily's befuddlement, never threatens to operate at such rarefied cinematic altitudes—Ignacio Ferraras' Spanish animation Wrinkles (2011) remains the decade's most touching and surprising assisted-living facility saga.

Like August Jr's most successful screenplay to date, Superclasico (2011), this is essentially conventional and straightforward fare, even soap-operatic at times—as when Lily traumatically confesses her "sins" to her family during a Christmas gathering. But it's consistently elevated by Norby's performance as a strong character who, as the seasons pass, seems to crumble from within before our eyes.

The presentation of her deterioration is all the more affecting for avoiding easy sentiment, even if in the final act August and Noer elect to pull back from the grim abyss towards which their sympathetic protagonists appear to have been inexorably stumbling. This is in very stark contrast not only to Michael Haneke's Amour, but also to R: Hit First, Hit Hardest, the prison-picture which Noer co-wrote and co-directed with Tobias Lindholm (A Hijacking), and which followed the steely courage of its convictions into a very dark place indeed.

Losing some momentum when one of the points of this unusual love "triangle" falls away, Key House Mirror is kept on track by Norby's skilled delineation of the increasingly vulnerable Lily, with Wollter providing deft, nuanced support when needed. Working once again with key collaborators Adam Nielsen (editor) and Magnus Nordenhof Jonck (cinematographer), Noer maintains his trademark style of unfussy verisimiltude. Musical scoring is thankfully eschewed—repeated diegetic plays of Cole Porter's "I Love Paris" will delight Dean Martin fans but test the patience of the Dino-phobic—and handheld camerawork within a 2.35:1 widescreen frame keeps us slightly off-balance as and when required.

Production company: Nordisk
Cast: Ghita Norby, Sven Wollter, Trine Pallesen, Jens Brenaa
Director: Michael Noer
Screenwriters: Michael Noer, Anders Frithiof August
Producer: Tomas Radoor
Cinematographer: Magnus Nordenhof Jonck
Production designer: Rie Lykke
Costume designer: Pernille Holm
Editor: Adam Nielsen
Sales: TrustNordisk, Hvidovre, Denmark

No Rating, 95 minutes

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