'Sonja: The White Swan': Film Review | Sundance 2019

Skating on thin ice.

Award-winning Norwegian director Anne Sewitsky tries to present figure skating champion and movie star Sonja Henie as a Hollywood trailblazer.

Probably very few people today remember Sonja Henie, an Olympic figure skating champion and a Hollywood movie star for about a decade, beginning in the 1930s. After seeing the new film about her life, Sonja: The White Swan, it seems unlikely that many people will want to rediscover her. Acclaimed Norwegian director Anne Sewitsky, who won an award for an earlier Sundance movie, Happy, Happy, was understandably drawn to revisit a significant part of Norwegian history that has slipped into obscurity. But some significant miscalculations hurt this biopic.

Henie, as played by Ine Marie Wilmann, definitely comes across as a strong-willed woman, and that may be why Sewitsky was motivated to tell her story, to serve as a kind of role model for other aspiring Hollywood titans. But strong and powerful are not in and of themselves attractive qualities when the person who possesses them is utterly selfish and destructive. The slick but formulaic filmmaking is not much of an advantage here, either.

Like many films today, Sonja moves backward and forward in time, but essentially it follows Henie's rise from champion skater to Hollywood power broker, and then goes on to chronicle her fall from grace. When Henie meets 20th Century Fox chieftain Darryl Zanuck (rather unconvincingly played by Aidan McArdle), she rejects his idea of appearing in a splashy skating sequence in one of his movies and instead insists on a four-picture deal with her as star. Surprisingly, Zanuck agrees, but the film never convinces us that the ruthless mogul would have been so easily cowed by a novice from Norway.

There must have been a bit more to the story, given Zanuck's reputation for sexual shenanigans. But perhaps out of a fear of offending current #MeToo partisans, the pic leaves the dubious impression that Zanuck was simply wowed by her determination. Wilmann is commanding in the title role, but she doesn't quite convince that she could run roughshod over a very patriarchal studio system.

Most of the Henie movies are forgotten today. (Sun Valley Serenade is probably the one that is best known.) The film depicts a torrid romance with one of her early co-stars, Tyrone Power, and dramatizes other drug-and-sex-fueled escapades that don't come off very convincingly. One serious problem is that Henie's ruthlessness is off-putting rather than compelling. When she tells Zanuck that she can assure her films' distribution in Germany because of her friendship with Hitler's propaganda minister, Joseph Goebbels, it's hard for an audience to retain much sympathy for her. She also mistreats her devoted brother and many other men in her life, acquiring a fortune but shedding friends and family along the way. It may be true that Henie succeeded in a man's world because of her ruthless business drive, but that fact isn't quite sufficient to make her a commanding heroine.

Repeated flashbacks to her childhood as a skating prodigy seem to be hinting that her life might be explained by her exploitation at an early age, but if this is Sewitsky's Rosebud, it lands with a thud. Sonja: The White Swan is admittedly a handsome production, shot in Spain and Romania as well as Norway, and the filmmaking is energetic enough to keep us watching. But some of the gaps in continuity are confounding, and we end up with no more sympathy for Henie at the end of this overlong saga than we had at the outset.

Cast: Ine Marie Wilmann, Valene Kane, Eldar Skar, Pal Sverre Hagen, Aidan McArdle, Anders Mordal, Malcolm Adams, Anneke von der Lippe
Director: Anne Sewitsky
Screenwriters: Mette M. Bolstad, Andreas Markusson
Producers: Cornelia Boysen, Synnove Horsdal
Director of photography: Daniel Voldheim
Production designer: Lina Nordqvist
Editors: Cristoffer Heie, Martin Stoltz
Music: Ray Harman
Venue: Sundance Film Festival (Premieres)

114 minutes