'Hope' ('Hap'): Film Review | TIFF 2019

Courtesy of TIFF
Scenes from a marriage with a ticking clock.

Andrea Braein Hovig and Stellan Skarsgard play a couple navigating crisis in this intimate drama pulled from the real-life experience of Norwegian writer-director Maria Sodahl.

The relationships in Maria Sodahl's Hope are drawn with an observational style that's rigorously, disarmingly honest — that goes for romantic unions, friendships, parenting, interactions within the broader dynamic of an extended family, even the anxious exchanges between patient and doctor. The maturity of the writer-director's gaze and the highly personal nature of material drawn from her own difficult experience bring an affecting gravitas to that most over-trafficked of subgenres, the cancer movie. Factor in two layered performances of penetrating emotional acuity from Andrea Braein Hovig and Stellan Skarsgard and you have a melancholy but highly satisfying adult drama.

The film opens with modern dance choreographer Anja (Hovig) wrapping up international tour dates and returning home to Oslo to immediate annoyance. Her partner of many years, theater director Tomas (Skarsgard), has left the care of their children to the older offspring from his previous marriage. Anja is a warm, devoted mother, but we instantly get the picture that Tomas, while a good man, is also a workaholic too caught up in his professional life to pay attention to details at home. A subtle suggestion of artistic competitiveness surfaces, though that's never unduly hammered.

Sodahl breaks down the action into chapter heads, starting "The Day Before Christmas Eve" and concluding on January 2. Anja's headaches, dizziness and blurred vision prompt her to see her doctor. An MRI reveals a metastasized brain tumor that may not be operable, particularly if it's a secondary growth connected to the lung cancer for which she underwent surgery a year earlier. "It feels like I've known for ages," Anja says calmly, while Tomas is so stunned as they leave the hospital he can't even remembered where he parked.

The gnawing conflict of not knowing how to react, or what to tell their children and friends, is amplified by the uncertainty of the period, with specialists off for the holidays and nobody able or willing to give a definitive prognosis. Meanwhile, the high dosage of steroids Anja is prescribed to reduce fluid around the growth put her through hell with nausea, sleeplessness and erratic mood swings.

She's also bugged by Tomas' perceived insensitivity, for instance when he invites additional guests to Christmas lunch without consulting her. Sodahl is good at zeroing in on the specifics of little things that can take on momentous weight in such a situation. These add to Anja's despair as she starts sifting through their years together — they never married — and passing harsh assessments on a union she says was never all that unified, even at the best of times. Tomas begins walking on egg shells around her, attempting, often in clumsy ways — an impractical Christmas gift of her dream trip to India, for example — to absorb her anger and anxiety and remain close to her. A scene in which she initiates sex and then dissolves into tears is intensely moving.

Without ever cheapening the drama by milking it for sentiment, Sodahl gradually ups the stakes as Anja begins unburdening herself. This happens first in a beautiful scene in which she opens up at a party to her friend Vera (Gjertrud Louise Jynge, terrific), and then in a wrenching interlude in which she and Tomas sit down to tell the children. Just the evasive look on Skarsgard's face as Tomas fudges information from a doctor about the survival rate is shattering. Teenage Julie (Elli Muller Osborne), being perhaps at an even more vulnerable age than her younger siblings, takes the news hardest.

There are a number of tender scenes between Anja and her children, especially Julie, but the narrative engine of the movie is without question the sudden volatility of a relationship both she and Tomas had neglected to nurture for years. Driven by the shared agitation of medical consultations, they pull together, but not without recriminations and unforgiving judgments. When Tomas gingerly proposes getting married on New Year's Eve, Anja's initial response is that it's too late to bother. Given that it's also her birthday, she half-jokes to Vera in typically brittle fashion, "You'll only have to remember me once a year. And you'll get fireworks."

But Sodahl also remains attuned to the resilience of love amid all the sorrow and anticipated grief. One minute Anja is cruelly declaring that she should have found the courage to leave Tomas years ago, and the next minute her eyes are revealing how desperately she has craved greater commitment from this somewhat distant man. The film also is casually insightful about the ways in which children learn more about their parents in times of emotional upheaval than in all the relatively peaceful years.

The fact that Sodahl (who is married to film and commercials director Hans Petter Moland, on whom Skarsgard's character is based) is still around to make the movie is in itself something of a spoiler alert, but that doesn't lessen the tension as the day of Anja's surgery approaches. And the choice to close on a cryptic note leaves questions resonating about whether the central relationship has been fortified by the ordeal or the shakiness of its foundations irreversibly exposed.

The movie is elegantly shot in muted tones, with a pleasing but not overly mannered sense of composition, and scored with stirring classical pieces. But it's the integrity of the performances by Hovig and Skarsgard that keeps the classy drama so engrossing, with the director making neither character entirely saint or sinner but giving them both infinite shadings in between.

Anja's struggle to project efficient self-possession often reads as cold, her resentment curdling into bitterness, though Hovig never loses sight of the terrible fears ruling her behavior. And Skarsgard expertly reveals the internal processes of a man accustomed to having his artistic achievements scrutinized, but not his private failings. The feelings playing across Tomas' stricken face — of guilt, regret, concern and a love that he has too long taken for granted — ensure that both partners remain empathetic.

Production companies: Motlys, Zentropa Sweden, Film i Vast, Oslo Pictures
Cast: Andrea Braein Hovig, Stellan Skarsgard, Elli Muller Osborne, Daniel Storm Forthun Sandbye, Alfred Vatne Brean, Gjertrud Louise Jynge, Alexander Mork Eidem, Einar Oklan, Dina Enoksen, Steinar Hallert, Eirik Hallert
Director-screenwriter: Maria Sodahl
Producer: Thomas Robsahm
Executive producers: Yngve Saether, Espen Osmundsen
Director of photography: Manuel Alberto Claro
Production designer: Jorgen Stangebye Larsen
Costume designer: Ellen Daehli Ystehede
Editor: Christian Siebenherz
Casting: Celine Engebrigtsen
Venue: Toronto International Film Festival (Discovery)
Sales: TrustNordisk

126 minutes