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Over a single weekend, family members gather round a wish-to-die matriarch to powerful dramatic effect in Silent Heart, an intimate family drama that explores with nuance, depth and a slightly oppressive sense of decorum the complex issue of assisted dying. After the disappointing Night Train to Lisbon, Heart signals a return to form for the former Oscar-winner Bille August, who here explores with practiced ease and an alertness the emotional truth of the dynamics of an ordinarily neurotic family in an extraordinary situation. Accessible without being easy, and played to perfection by a superbly directed cast, Heart looks set to beat at festivals and in the European arthouse.
The film is set in a large, softly-lit, and austerely-decorated country pad on a isolated Danish island, where presumably no one can hear you scream. Esther (Ghita Norby, a grande dame of Danish cinema who is working again with August after a 20+ year gap) is ill at home and, having chosen New Year to say goodbye, she and doctor husband (Morten Grunwald) have gathered her family around her for the occasion. They are her daughters, bossy Heidi (Paprika Steen) and the younger, mixed-up Sanne (Danica Curcic); their respective partners Michael (Jens Albinus) and dope-smoking Dennis (Pilou Asbaek); and Heidi and Michael’s son Jonathan (Oskar Saelan Kalskov). Esther’s old friend Lisbeth (Vigga Bro), essentially an onlooker until she comes to the dramatic fore later, completes the crew.
The family dynamics are efficiently set up. Something of a Queen Bitch, Heidi has decided to stop making judgements for the weekend and let her mother have things just the way she wants. (She will fail miserably to achieve this.) Sanne is popping pills in an attempt to stave off her depression, while the immensely likeable slacker Dennis repeatedly puts his foot in it but carries on smiling anyway. (He’s described as being an emotional eight-year-old, but in the uptight world of Silent Heart, that proves to be quite a good thing.) In the margins, henpecked Michael keeps his mouth shut, while Jonathan worries about a girl.
Michael Haneke’s Amour casts a long shadow over any film dealing with this subject, and August’s film only briefly touches upon the depths of pain that death can cause. But it is the effects of Esther’s dying on her family that are the main focus here, not the death itself. There are no end of family reunion movies in which appalling revelations about the past are made, but here, that doesn’t quite happen — the various family accusations that fly around reflect not the truth, but the insecurities of the accusers, particularly those of the terrifying, controlling Heidi.
The precision-tooled plot has been crafted to ensure that a range of moral issues are explored along the way: underpinning all of them is the key issue of who matters more in such a situation, the wishes of the dying or the wishes of the bereaved. Even-handed in the extreme, and brought to life by a cast alert to every dramatic nuance (particularly round the dinner table), the script of Silent Heart skewers and sympathizes with in turn with each of its characters as their particular preoccupations threaten to spoil Esther’s final party. That the audience can be moved to empathize with a character like Heidi, or indeed be critical of a character like Esther, who is shortly to die, is testimony to that even-handedness.
It’s far from being all grim. The script knows that there is black humor in emotional extremity which can border on farce, and milks it wonderfully, as when Heidi’s gift to Esther, a salt and pepper set, is contrasted with Lisbeth’s (flowers). One laugh-aloud scene, as cathartic as it is for the audience as it is for the cast, has the entire family puffing at one of Dennis’ joints. Dramatically this kind of scene is not easy to pull off, but August judges it well: by the end of it the audience knows the characters better, and the characters know themselves better.
There is, however, a certain air of uptight purposefulness about the film, which has been planned and prepared as carefully as one might prepare for an assisted suicide, making this a one-Kleenex movie rather than the whole damn pack. There is anger at the protestant core of Silent Heart and there is repressed pain, but only briefly does the audience witness true suffering, with Esther and an emotionally overwhelmed Sanne on a bed in one another’s arms. But then again, this is a family which has chosen not to suffer.
Production company: SF Film Production
Cast: Ghita Norby, Paprika Steen, Danica Curcic, Morten Grunwald, Pilou Asbaek, Jens Albinus, Vigga Bro
Director: Bille August
Screenwriter: Christian Torpe
Producers: Jesper Morthorst
Director of photography: Dirk Bruel
Editor: Anne Osterud, Janus Billeskov Jansen
Composer: Annette Focks
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