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Neither sleep-inducing nor especially entrancing, Swedish thriller The Hypnotist (Hypnotisören) turns Lars Kepler’s critically-adored international best-seller into disappointingly boilerplate slice of Nordic noir. So while the appetite for books, TV and movies of this stripe shows little signs of abating across Europe and elsewhere, this Stockholm-set tale of a lone-wolf cop investigating a multiple homicide with help from an unorthodox psychologist is unlikely to attract many new recruits to the genre. Prospects are brightest in Scandinavia, where ‘Kepler’ – actually the nom-de-plume for a husband-and-wife duo – has been shrewedly positioned alongside Jo Nesbø as heir to the phenomenally successful Henning Mankell and Stieg Larsson.
A significant selling-point ‘up north’ is the return “home” of three-time Academy Award nominated director Lasse Hallström after a quarter-century Hollywood hiatus that yielded hits like What’s Eating Gilbert Grape?, The Cider House Rules and Chocolat. But the proficient director shows no particular flair for a genre he’s previously avoided, instead turning in what feels more a slick, extended pilot for an after-dark TV series rather than the birth of a new big-screen franchise.
The Hypnotist’s producers have nevertheless already expressed somewhat optimistic hopes that Finnish-born leading man Tobias Zilliacus will topline no fewer than seven further movies as dourly driven investigator Joona Linna – the third novel in the sequence is already out in English translation. Premiering in Sweden on September 28 – the same day as its bow in the competition section at San Sebastian – that nation’s Foreign Language Oscar submission debuts in Norway the following week with releases in Finland, the Netherlands and Denmark announced for November and December.
Since Golden Globe winner My Life as a Dog (1985) brought him to Hollywood’s attention, Hallström has become associated with glossy adaptations of successful middlebrow novels, their success largely dependent on the quality of the scripts. Here the screenplay is by Paolo Vacirca, whose sole previous big-screen credit is last year’s family-oriented TV-spinoff Hotell Gyllene Knorren – a surprising choice for Hallström’s belated detour into the grim world of the police procedural.
And whereas Kepler’s novel – last year named as one of Time magazine’s ten best of any type – successfully split its focus between federal investigator Joona and psychologist Erik Bark (In A Better World’s Mikael Persbrandt), the film struggles to find the appropriate balance. We learn very little about Joona apart from his being straight, fortyish, single, childless, maverick and dedicated. Whereas the insomniac Bark has a checkered professional past, a troubled marriage to artist Simone (Hallström’s wife Lena Olin) and a young son, Benjamin (Oscar Pettersson) who’s addicted to violent video-games and has a hemophiliac blood condition.
The latter detail is dropped into the narrative with a hefty thud, and needless to say becomes a crucial plot-point in the latter sections after Benjamin has been kidnapped by a nocturnal intruder. This shadowy miscreant wants to prevent Bark’s (unofficial) involvement in Joona’s latest case, which pivots on assaults that left three members of the same family bloodily dispatched and a fourth, teenager Josef (Jonatan Bökman), comatose in hospital.
Bark’s mesmerism skills are so advanced he’s even able to converse with this unconscious lad – just the first of several developments which strain credibility in isolation and then gradually accumulate so that by the climax we’re hovering on a dangerous edge of absurdity. It doesn’t help that there are so few suspects on view, and that the red herrings strewn in our path are so conspicuously piscine in their rosiness, in a picture which lumbers dutifully along without ever really hitting a proper momentum or establishing a distinct character of its own.
That The Hypnotist nevertheless manages to exert a certain steely spell is due largely to co-leads Persbrandt and Zilliacus, who find productively different registers of baritone, downbeat gravitas as two slightly underwritten characters with potential for growth and depth in future instalments. Cinematographer Mattias Montero will hopefully be kept on board, as he displays – often from vertiginous overhead perspectives – an icily picturesque Stockholm to maximum advantage, in a production whose somber intensity is further heightened by Oscar Fogelström‘s unintrusively sinister score.
The second Kepler adaptation, The Paganini Contract, is in pre-production and will be directed by Kjell Sundvall – who, like Hallström, got his first major international exposure via directing music videos for supergroup ABBA. In contrast to the globetrotting Hallström, however, Sundvall has remained very much a homeboy, best known for TV and big-screen policiers featuring cop Harry Beck that have, somewhat ominously for this series’ prospects, made comparatively few waves overseas.
Venue: San Sebastian – Donostia Film Festival, Spain (Competition), September 28, 2012.
Production company: Svensk Filmindustri
Cast: Tobias Zilliacus, Mikael Persbrandt, Lena Olin, Jonatan Bökman, Helena af Sandeberg, Oscar Pettersson
Director: Lasse Hallström
Screenwriter: Paolo Vacirca, based on the novel by ‘Lars Kepler’
Producers: Peter Possne, Börje Hansson, Bertil Ohlsson
Director of photography: Mattias Montero
Production designer: Lasse Westfelt
Costume designer: Karin Sundvall
Music: Oscar Fogelström
Editors: Sebastian Amundsen, Thomas Täng
Sales agent: Svensk Filmindustri, Stockholm
No MPAA rating, 122 minutes