There is no shortage of movies that deal with the sensitive subject of illness. It’s delicate ground to cover and an emotional minefield for filmmakers willing to navigate such heavy material with earnestness. Yet you can never judge these types of movies by one over-arching standard. That’s because there are deeply human and often intensely personal stories of all kinds related to sickness. That’s why when done well these movies can have a powerful and visceral impact on an audience. And when done poorly, words like ‘exploitative’ and ‘manipulative’ often come up.
The terrific “Hope” dodges those pitfalls thanks to the clear-eyed sincerity of writer-director Maria Sødahl. She pours herself into the movie, pulling from her own cancer scare to convey the gamut of emotions that surround such a life-changing diagnosis. At the same time it’s a deeply affecting relationship drama anchored by two unforgettable performances. “Hope” premiered at Toronto in 2019 and was Norway’s official selection for this year’s Academy Awards. Now it’s finally getting its official US release courtesy of Brooklyn-based KimStim Films and it’s easy to see why it has garnered so much praise.
When talking about “Hope” you have to begin with the emotionally rich and complex performances from Andrea Bræin Hovig and Stellan Skarsgård. They play partners Anja and Tomas, two stage producers who have been together for years yet have steadily grown apart. They have a nice spacious flat in Oslo where they live with their three children and three other children from Tomas’ previous marriage. Anja and Tomas never married, always finding some reason, either personal or professional, to put it off. These days they maintain their relationship out of a sense of routine, both withdrawn into their own disconnected worlds.
On the day before Christmas Eve Anja goes to see her doctor to get something for her dizzying headaches. Her concerned physician immediately calls for an MRI which reveals a malignant brain tumor believed to be linked to her lung cancer from exactly one year earlier. It’s obviously devastating news and there’s no proper handbook on how to handle it. Sødahl understands this and she gives both Anja and Tomas space to deal with the news in their own ways without ever making judgements. This is where Hovig and Skarsgård really shine.
As the story plays out through the Christmas and New Years holiday, the couple attempt to come to grips with her diagnosis while wrestling with the ‘hows’ and ‘whens’ of telling their family. “I don’t want my kids to hate the holidays,” Anja laments. At the same time, her condition forces the partners to come together in a way they haven’t been in years. At first it’s out of necessity, “I can’t do it on my own,” she explains. But later, as Anja and Tomas reckon with their relationship, waves of raw and repressed emotions come to the surface. Long buried anger, frustration, perhaps even love are unearthed as the two struggle to find themselves amid Anja’s life-threatening condition. And with her time remaining suddenly in question, they’re finally willing to open up and be candid with each other.
Hovig’s performance is something to behold – a rich and textured portrayal that equally captures her character’s strength and fragility. With a striking authenticity Hovig sells every facet of Anja’s physical, mental, and emotional struggle. And she’s just as powerful in her quieter and more intimate moments. Meanwhile the seasoned Skarsgård can speak volumes without saying a word. His sad, heavily burdened eyes show a man crushed by his wife’s diagnosis and silently processing it to the best of his ability. Other times he seems lost, unsure of what to do or say. So he listens, knowing Anja needs that outlet to release her emotions and unpack her frustrations.
As the story pushes forward the reason for the movie’s title comes into focus. As Anja suffers through headaches, nausea, mood swings, and anxiety; as she suppresses and endures all of that pain just to give her family a “normal” Christmas; as she listens to conflicting suggestions from medical specialists; she’s left with the aching question – is there any hope? Is having hope in her situation rooted in reality or is it simply a coping mechanism? It’s a weighty question that Sødahl handles delicately but sincerely. And she can do so because she’s been in Anja’s shoes.
Yet the question of hope isn’t reserved just for Anja’s cancer, but also her relationship with Tomas. Is there hope for two people full of regret, who wasted years of their lives disconnected from each other and burrowing into their work, to rediscover the love that brought them together in the first place? Sødahl, Hovig, and Skarsgård explore this question with a real-life sensibility – no frills, no gloss, no melodrama, just truth. And because of that unclouded honesty and deep human expression, this becomes so much more than just another movie about cancer. “Hope” is set for a limited theater release April 16th.
VERDICT – 4.5 STARS