Perhaps some events are simply so awful that the only way to deal with them on film is to pare back the storytelling. Find a script where the actors talk like ordinary people. Don’t use big name actors who may distract from the film. Don’t rely on an emotive soundtrack to guide an audience how to feel. And give the whole enterprise a low key, documentary-like, every day feel. Basically, to let the events speak for themselves, without much in the way of embellishment.
British director Paul Greengrass did this supremely well in United 93, his 2006 film on the 9/11 attacks in America. In a new film called 22 July, now available on Netflix, he examines the 2011 massacre by Anders Behring Breivik. Then 32, Breivik detonated a bomb which killed eight in Oslo, and then shot dead 69 young people attending a Norwegian Labour Party youth camp on the island of Utoya. Breivik’s sanity was much debated, but he was certainly a fanatic, espousing far-right, anti-immigration views to justify his actions.
In this film Greengrass employs similar techniques to those from his earlier work, and the result is a compelling, moving and disturbing story. That said, the two films differ in a significant way. United 93 takes on the chaos and panic of the response to 9/11, taking in victims and first responders. At times the pace in that film was frenetic and its effect was often almost unbearably gripping. United 93 stops with the deaths of those aboard the United flight. In 22 July we do see the Breivik assault, but there is a great deal of the film which deals with its aftermath, for Breivik and his victims. This means a considerable – and understandable – slowing of the pace of the film. The audience is given time to reflect on the enormity of the massacre, how it’s affected victims, and how Norwegian society grapples with it.
Still, we witness Breivik’s assault in some detail, and Greengrass does not hold back from depicting the mass shooting. It’s an arguable point as to how necessary this is, but I found that by showing the violence, and Brievik’s almost impassive approach to it, we are presented with the horror which the other characters in the story must confront. In that respect, the depiction of violence grimly works.
Breivik is played by Anders Danielsen Lie in performance which displays the delusional calm and detachment of the man. We see and hear a lot from Breivik, but Greengrass does not however delve far into Breivik’s past, and what drove him to become a mass killer. The reason for this may be, of course, that Breivik remains unfathomable. In the film we do meet Breivik’s mother (Hilda Olaussen) but she has little to offer. Our counterpoint to Breivik is his lawyer, Geir Lippestad (a superb performance from Jon Oigarden),who must find ways a defend a man whose actions utterly disgust and repulse him.
The focus of the story though is the victims, and Greengrass chooses one family, the Hanssens, as his vehicle. Two brothers, Viljar and Torje, are on Utoya when Breivik attacks. Torje (Isak Bagli Aglen) escapes physically unharmed but his older brother Viljar (Jonas Strand Gravli) is shot several times and left with critical injuries.
22 July follows Viljar’s struggle to rehabilitate, culminating in a confrontation with Brievik in court. Strand Gravli gives a very strong performance of a well educated, liberal thinking young man who has had his life turned upside down. Remember that the bulk of the young victims were members of a political party, and so we have characters here who are intelligent and articulate. This gives Greengrass the opportunity to convey the horror of Brievik’s crime and also the resolve of Norway, through courtroom speeches of Viljar, and of his friend Lara (Seda Witt). Both performances from these young actors are the highlights (and highlight isn’t the right word) of this film.
This is a story of real and recent events. It isn’t easy to watch, but it deserves to be watched.
One more note: This is the first review I’ve written for Crave which directly links to my previous work as a broadcast journalist. On 22 July 2011 I was a presenter of Radio New Zealand’s Morning Report programme and conducted several interviews with Norwegian correspondent Tomm Kristiansen during the immediate aftermath of the attacks, and then later during the subsequent trial. I also spoke to New Zealander Vanessa Svebakk, whose 14 year old daughter Sharidyn was the youngest of those killed by Breivik.
I recall both sets of interviews well, because of the dignity and poise displayed by both Tomm and Vanessa.
If you want to get a sense of what the real people involved in this story went through, here’s a link to those interviews on the Radio New Zealand website: