It takes remarkable insight and confidence to create a devastating portrait of a marriage inside a film about a woman facing her own mortality. That’s what writer/director Maria Sødahl does with searing Hope, Norway’s entry for this year’s Best International Feature Film Oscar. The film is so specific in its truthfulness that it isn’t a surprise to learn that it’s based on Sødahl’s own experience of a terminal cancer diagnosis that led to a nine-year hiatus from filmmaking. Of course, personal experience doesn’t always translate into art but in this case, it does.
The film opens on a high note of artistic accomplishment as Anja (Andrea Bræin Hovig) takes bows onstage alongside the performers she’s directed in a modern dance. She then returns home from the tour to the spacious, comfortable city home she shares with her older partner Tomas (Stellan Skarsgård) and their blended family, with three younger kids from their union and two older children from Tomas’s first marriage. There is the sense of domestic familiarity, even complacency. Tomas is a theater director and it seems that their separate, demanding careers in the arts have often kept them apart.
It’s just before Christmas, but Anja’s days are marked by a visit to her doctor who delivers grim news: her lung cancer from the year before as likely spread to the brain. A large tumor is present which accounts for her headaches and failing eyesight. Tomas accompanies her to a specialist as they both absorb the dire news. Even with brain surgery, Anja’s cancer in incurable and she likely has just months to live.
Hope nails the drama about a frightening and confusing diagnosis, the range of emotions, the surreal nature of a full life suddenly upended and thrust into the business of survival. But the brilliance of this film is in how Sødahl delicately layers Anja’s emotional journey of impersonal appointments to telling friends and family to confronting her own denial and complicity in her long relationship with Tomas. They never actually married, we learn, for reasons of timing and ambivalence. But now Tomas wants a wedding ceremony on New Year’s Eve which triggers a range of responses from Anja.
“Hope” recalls Bergman’s Scenes from a Marriage not just in its eloquent silences but in the close ups of the expressive eyes and faces of Hovig and Skarsgård, two extraordinary actors who communicate years of benign neglect, slights and stings with a single look. Their extended family, which includes Anja’s devoted father and their close friends, is part of the journey, too. Everyone awkwardly takes their cues from Anja, making for sometimes uncomfortable, sometimes absurdly funny moments such as when Tomas’s sad, stoic expression breaks as Anja starts laughing while pressing a white wedding dress to her body.
As the tense week progresses, the couple gradually finds a place of support and tenderness as they discover one another anew. It is a powerful realization that culminates in the final, breathtaking shot.