UTØYA — JULY 22

Empire (UK) - - CINEMA - ALEX GOD­FREY

DI­REC­TOR Erik Poppe

CAST An­drea Berntzen, Solveig Koløen Birke­land, Alek­sander Hol­men

PLOT On 22 July 2011, a home-grown right-wing ex­trem­ist com­mit­ted two ter­ror at­tacks in Nor­way: a car bomb in Oslo’s gov­ern­ment quar­ter, then, 40km north-west on the is­land of Utøya, a mas­sacre at the Nor­we­gian Labour Party’s Youth League summer camp. Utøya — July 22 re­vis­its the tragic day. IN NOR­WAY, ‘JULY 22’ is their 9/11 — the day that scarred the na­tion’s psy­che. Seven years on, some say it’s still too soon for drama­ti­sa­tion, yet two films have been made nev­er­the­less — this one, by Nor­way’s own Erik Poppe, and Paul Green­grass’ take (22 July) for Net­flix. The lat­ter takes in mul­ti­ple per­spec­tives, telling the broader story; Poppe sticks with the chil­dren.

He be­gins with gen­uine CCTV footage from the Oslo at­tack, then switches to Utøya, where the teenagers have heard the news. Some are politi­cised, some con­cerned, some in­dif­fer­ent — they’re teenagers. And al­though Poppe in­ter­viewed more than 40 sur­vivors, the char­ac­ters here are fic­tional. But the nat­u­ral­ism of the cast and their chem­istry im­me­di­ately im­bues the film with hu­man­ity, and is fur­ther height­ened by the tech­nique: one take, one shot, real time, no mu­sic. The one­and-done cam­era con­ceit (ex­e­cuted here by doc­u­men­tary pho­tog­ra­pher Martin Ot­ter­beck) has rarely felt as jus­ti­fied, re­mov­ing ar­ti­fice as much as pos­si­ble, stick­ing you on the is­land among it all. Sev­en­teen min­utes in, gun­shots are heard, pre­cip­i­tat­ing in­stant panic as the film flips: from here it is a con­stant heart at­tack. Think the cli­mac­tic seg­ment of Chil­dren Of Men, but for­ever. It is the con­stant sound of chil­dren in peril, and worse, with lit­tle respite.

Yet it is re­spect­ful. This is not Bat­tle Royale — it is con­sis­tently grue­some in its ten­sion, but never gra­tu­itous. Poppe has in­fi­nite op­por­tu­ni­ties to cheapen pro­ceed­ings, yet he doesn’t. That’s not to say there’s no fab­ri­ca­tion: we meet 18-year-old Kaja (Berntzen) first, and stay with her through­out — screen­writ­ers Siv Ra­jen­dram Eliassen and Anna Bache-wiig have her tra­verse the is­land, giv­ing us a sense of the scope of what hap­pened, trav­el­ling through dif­fer­ent sto­ries. The film does seem a lit­tle more con­structed to­wards the end as it searches for char­ac­ter arcs.

This, though, is fine — it’s not a doc­u­men­tary, and we need some­thing to hang on to. “You’ll never un­der­stand,” Kaja says to the cam­era, to us, at the start, be­fore it’s re­vealed she’s on the phone to her mother. We won’t un­der­stand; such things are be­yond com­pre­hen­sion. But Poppe wants us to feel, which can be hard to do in the face of daily global atroc­i­ties, where mas­sacres are wrapped in pol­i­tics, and vic­tims be­come sta­tis­tics. He suc­ceeds — the film leaves you bereft.

The at­tacker is phys­i­cally fea­tured maybe three times, and in fleet­ing, al­most ab­stract glimpses. He’s cer­tainly not named — in this telling of events, he is not af­forded such hu­man­ity. Time and again we hear, we say, how wrong it is to fo­cus on the ter­ror­ists, giv­ing them the glory they crave. That the story should be­long to the vic­tims. Over time, inevitably, that is rarely the case. For these 97 min­utes at least, Poppe re­dresses that bal­ance.

VERDICT Utøya — July 22 is hard­go­ing, as it should be — there was no so­lace in this sit­u­a­tion, and the film mir­rors the ter­ror, turn­ing us all into these kids’ par­ents.

An­drea Berntzen’s Kaja reg­is­ters the hor­ror.

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