'The Midwife' ('Kätilö'): Helsinki Review

Midwife - H 2015
Courtesy of Solar Films

This deluxe Nordic melodrama is visually rich but dramatically flawed.

Finland's latest domestic smash is a glossy historical action thriller about a wartime romance between a Finnish nurse and a Nazi officer.

Currently breaking box-office records domestically, Finland’s reigning blockbuster is a lavish action-heavy romance based on a 2011 best-seller by local author Katja Kettu. The Midwife takes place during the so-called “Lapland War,” when Nazi forces were retreating from the Finnish Arctic in the closing stages of World War II. The director is Antti J. Jokinen, whose credits include the 2011 Hillary Swank psycho-thriller The Resident and Finland’s 2012 Oscar nominee Purge, as well as music videos for the likes of Will Smith, Shania Twain, Kelly Clarkson and Celine Dion.

Both a strength and a weakness, Jokinen's florid visual style tends to overglamorize difficult subject matter, turning even genocidal war crimes into a kind of glossy, sexy fashion shoot. Imagine Schindler’s List directed by Michael Bay. All the same, this is a handsome old-school potboiler with sufficiently universal themes, attractive leads and sumptuous visuals to travel outside Finland, building on the book’s broad international success. Screened at Helsinki International Film Festival last week, The Midwife calls at Busan and Rome in October before making its U.S. debut at AFM in November.

Nicknamed “Wildeye,” Helena (Purge co-star Krisa Kosonen) is a hot-blooded young midwife living in the far north of Finland in 1944. Hers is a lonely, harsh existence dominated by rural poverty, pagan superstition and enforced occupation by German troops, who have co-opted the Finns as uneasy allies in their doomed fight against Soviet Russia. Hungry for passion and escape, Helena’s life takes a dramatic turn when she falls for Johannes (Lauri Tilkanen), a handsome German-Finnish officer with divided loyalties and, perhaps more importantly, killer cheekbones.

Contriving a way to follow Johannes to his latest posting by enlisting as a nurse in the Titovka prison camp, Helena initially turns a blind eye both to her new lover’s shady military track record and to the sinister medical experiments being conducted in a special ward called “the cowshed.” But conflict soon arises with the camp commandant, Gödel (Tommi Korpela), an inhuman sadist with predatory sexual designs on Helena. As the Russians advance and inevitable military defeat looms for the Germans, the camp becomes a hellish prison full of desperate paranoia and casual slaughter. The young lovers suddenly face serious threat, not just to their nascent romance but to their very lives.

Packed with incident and spectacle, The Midwife is a deluxe melodrama shot with great visual swagger. Jokinen and his cinematographer, Rauno Ronkainen, transform the arctic landscapes into magical widescreen tableaux using a range of effects including slow motion, time-reversed shots, and split-focus images framed by artfully blurred margins.

But while it thrills on a sensory level, The Midwife frequently misfires as drama. The romantic chemistry between Helena and Johannes, ostensibly the plot’s main driving engine, feels forced and unconvincing. Likewise Gödel, whose gothic stage-villain shtick is more camp than menacing. The cluttered story also depends a little too heavily on freak coincidences, miraculous strokes of luck, and minor characters who are quietly forgotten or killed once they outlive their usefulness.

Most jarringly, The Midwife is plainly more invested in the minor romantic trials of its pretty young protagonists than in the wartime horrors unfolding all around them, which are glossed over in a timid and perfunctory manner. In a clumsy bid for audience sympathy, Johannes is also depicted as a sensitive soul afflicted by a convenient case of amnesia and lingering guilt over his thinly explained role in a brutal massacre. He feels bad. So all is forgiven. Sure, why not?

Of course, an emotionally engaging movie featuring two naive Nazi collaborators as its romantic leads is certainly not impossible nowadays, but it would need a lot more moral shading and character depth than The Midwife. Even so, Jokinen deserves credit for mustering his full stylistic arsenal in this visually ravishing hymn to Finland’s rugged landscape and resilient people. A guilty pleasure.

Production companies: Solar Films
Cast: Krisa Kosonen, Lauri Tilkanen, Tommi Korpela, Pirkka-Pekka Petelius, Leea Klemola
Director: Antti J. Jokinen
Screenwriters: Antti J. Jokinen, Katja Kettu
Cinematographer: Rauno Ronkainen

Editor: Benkamin Mercer
Music: Pessi Levanto
Costume designer: Anna Vilppunen
Producers: Jukka Helle, Markus Selin
Sales company: Picture Tree International, Berlin

No MPAA rating, 119 minutes