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Speed Walking is among those contemporary films that highlights the continuing divergence between European and American cultural sensibilities, recalling with its frank sexual situations the early art house onslaught of French, Italian and Scandinavian films from the 60s and 70s.
The fact that it’s set in the latter part of that period will strike a familiar chord with mature audiences, as will Niels Arden Oplev’s directing credit, although it’s unlikely his gentle touch with this sometimes sensitive material will do for the film what his commend of form and tone managed for The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo. European markets will certainly respond favorably to this Danish feature, although in North America the film could make for a rather specialized item.
It’s the cusp of summer 1976 and 14-year-old Martin (Villads Boye) is preparing for his upcoming Christian confirmation ceremony when his mother Maja (Stine Stengade) unexpectedly dies after a sudden onset of cancer. His devastated father Hans (Anders W. Berthelsen) can barely deal with the tragedy, moving into the basement rather than sleeping in the bed he formerly shared with his wife. Martin’s older brother Jens (Jens Malthe Naesby) isn’t much better off, seeking refuge behind a pair of his mother’s oversize sunglasses day and night. The only ones who understand what Martin is going through are his best friend Kim (Frederik Winther Rasmussen) and his pretty blonde classmate Kristine (Kraka Donslund Nielsen), a nearby neighbor in a town where everyone knows the latest news and gossip.
As Martin struggles to cope, he discovers that one of the few advantages of his traumatic emotional ordeal is that Kristine is now taking a much greater interest in him, even hinting that he may be in for a kiss once the mourning period for his mother concludes. Back at school, Martin continues to excel on the speed-walking team, consistently outpacing Kim and his other classmates during practice. Now that he’s discovered sex, however, Kim has other things on his mind, some of which he’d like to share with Martin, who remains fairly clueless. In between daydreaming about Kristine and trying to rally his dad and brother back to some sense of normalcy, Martin indulges his curiosity about Kim’s secret disclosures, some of which give him ideas about how he’d like to pursue Kristine, especially after he claims the promised kiss.
In fact, Kristine has much more intriguing plans in mind, but she’s going to make Martin wait until after their confirmation to explore them. Meanwhile, Martin is also drawing closer to Kim, caught up in a tumult of hormonal urges and unfocused desire. Whether all of this confusion will set the course for Martin’s adult life or prove a passing youthful diversion, it’s clear there’s no going back to the innocent days before his mother’s passing.
Adapting Morten Kirkskov’s novel Kapgang, screenwriter Bo hr. Hansen portrays a veritable sexual revolution taking place in the film’s small Danish town. In addition to Martin’s tentative explorations, his father is having a torrid affair with the local hairdresser and his brother is accepting sexual favors from an older woman cheating on her husband, who’s probably cheating on her too. If it all sounds like a bit much for a rural backwater, Hansen and Oplev unfurl the narrative fairly organically, although a couple of scenes seem rather too gratuitous.
The youthful castmembers are so strong however, that they throw the follies of the adults into high relief. Boye makes a heartfelt debut as Martin, but isn’t above suffering the not-infrequent indignities that lend the film much of its knowing humor. Rasmussen and Nielsen remain very much on his same wavelength, delivering warm, sympathetic performances.
Oplev is perfectly in tune with the script’s tender tone, deftly guiding the believable cast through the film’s frequent emotional twists and turns. And if the adults are cast in an often unsavory light, it’s all in the interest of exemplifying the kids’ relative sincerity compared with their predictably flawed elders. Rasmus Videbaek’s cinematography emphasizes the film’s characterful setting, enlivened by production designer Rie Lykke’s persuasive period rendition of provincial Danish small-town life.
Production company: Nordisk Film Production
Cast: Villads Boye, Frederik Winther Rasmussen, Kraka Donslund Nielsen, Anders W. Berthelsen, Sidse Babett Knudsen, Jens Malthe Naesby, Stine Stengade
Director: Niels Arden Oplev
Screenwriter: Bo hr. Hansen
Producer: Thomas Heinesen
Executive producer: Henrik Zein
Director of photography: Rasmus Videbaek
Production designer: Rie Lykke
Editor: Anne Osterud
Music: Jacob Groth
No rating, 108 minutes
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