Film is a visual medium. This much is both true and obvious. By nature of it being visual, there is a simple axiom that everyone who goes to film school has drilled into their heads: “show, don’t tell”. Within this, it follows that whatever information you can deliver without having to actually say it, you should. So, it follows that the most important tool in the filmmaker’s arsenal is silence.
Use of silence can be powerful, both in the examination of the unsaid and in the reasons that it remains so. It can build suspense, building towards an explosion, either literal or not, it can create contrast by cutting between silence and noise and, in following through the logic of “show, don’t tell”, it does not force-feed or manipulate the emotion of the scene in the way that some consider sound-tracking, or at least over sound-tracking to do.
Hope uses silence in fascinating, naturalistic ways. It suggests both a lived-in, intimate shorthand, one where entire scenes are told more in the ways the central couple look at each other, saying with their eyes a reference to memories that the audience hasn’t been part of, but also it suggests a gap or more accurately, a void where they are looking for something to fill the silence that might make it all OK.
Hope is the third feature from Norwegian writer-director Maria Sødahl, following 2010’s acclaimed Limbo. Originally released in 2019 and entered as Norway’s submission for the 93rd Academy Awards, it has now made its way to British shores and just in time for Christmas. It concerns Anja (Andrea Bræin Hovig), a dancer who receives a terminal diagnosis shortly before Christmas and the pressure this puts on her and her partner, theatre director Tomas (Stellan Skarsgård), when she makes the decision not to tell the rest of her family.
With its use of natural lighting, unfussy camera movements, minimal non-diegetic sound and use of real medical professionals for all the hospital scenes, this is a film that is choosing to represent living with a diagnosis that may represent a death sentence as a very real, painful, detailed and almost defiantly unsentimental journey. By keeping it unfussy and focused, the film is rested almost entirely on the shoulders of Hovig and Skarsgård. Luckily they are more than capable of helming this vessel. Skarsgård, some twenty years older than Hovig, plays every inch of his 6″3 frame for dramatic purpose, hulking over scenes while contrasting with a subdued, supportive, quietly heartbreaking performance.
Hovig as the cancer-stricken Anja is given the more obviously dramatic material but she never overplays it. Hers is not an always sympathetic portrayal, but that only serves to further make her feel more fully three-dimensional. She also rarely goes for the obvious targets, constantly keeping her character’s unpredictable bouts of anger as reactive moments that feel more prompted than scripted. It is a practically flawless central performance that, especially in retrospect, feels more deserving of praise and accolades than it perhaps received.
It feels important to note, this is not a quote-unquote ‘cancer movie’ in so much that it concerns a character with cancer. It is set around Christmas-time and yet, it is very much not a ‘Christmas movie’. These elements form part of the feeling of how, in real-life, no bad news ever comes at the right time in so much as there ever can be one. But it is not so much a tale of someone persevering over fatal illness but instead about how these sorts of tragic bombshells can cause relationships, especially those that have become so routine that they have gone beyond the need to express their love, to be re-examined.
With this, there is plenty to be read into in Anja’s relationship with her father, the symbolism surrounding her loss of ability to read but it also functions well as a text to be taken and absorbed fully at face value.
At 130 minutes, to say this is a grueling journey would be something of an understatement. It does feel like every included scene has a purpose in charting what is an unconventional and prickly love story and yet, especially around the hour-hour and a half-point, it does suffer from a feeling of slight water-treading. As if it is looking to make connections between what has happened and what’s to come in ways that feel slightly neater than reality often is.
Equally, in establishing three shared children and three from a previous relationship of Tomas’, it is presenting high stakes for either survival or proper preparation of what is to happen in the event of Anja’s death. It does, however, leave the six children feeling more like plot devices as we never really discover fully-rounded ideas of what separates these six characters.
To question whether Hope actually has any or indeed ends with a note of hope, seems to go back to a piece of advice imparted earlier in the film where a doctor informs Anja and Tomas they should “give the children 10% more hope than they have.” For the audience, it is not about whether we ourselves believe that Anja will survive but that we, like the children, as an audience are left with a chance that everything will be alright.
This approach could be seen as risky, open-ended conclusions can lend proceedings a lack of satisfaction, as if the filmmaker couldn’t decide themselves one or the other, though there have been instances such as Will Sharpe’s magnificent Flowers, where it represented his own lack of desire to make that choice for an audience because either way felt disingenuous. In this instance, it feels like a statement about hope as part of belief. It is not about survival but about whether we can muster the faith to believe in a happy outcome and the importance of those around us in supporting and cultivating this.
It ends, instead, on a pitch-perfect note where, like Hamlet once said, “The rest, is silence.”
Hope is out in cinemas now.