As the old saying goes, “while there’s life, there’s hope” — a truth that’s at the heart of writer-director Maria Sødahl’s deeply personal drama (which is also Norway’s contender for the 2021 Academy Awards). Inspired by her own experiences related to receiving a terminal health diagnosis, it offers an unflinching portrait of a woman whose life is upended by a metastatic brain tumor.
It’s just before Christmas, and Anja (a raw, fearless Andrea Bræin Hovig), who directs dance performances, is flush with triumph over the successful premiere of her latest work. Tired from work travel and irritated at her workaholic producer partner, Tomas (Stellan Skarsgård), for not stepping up to shepherd the couple’s large blended family of children in her absence, she has a headache she can’t seem to shake. A visit to the doctor confirms Anja’s worst fears: The lung cancer she had surgically removed a year before has spread, and she has a large, incurable brain tumor.
But incurable doesn’t necessarily mean an immediate death sentence, as Anja and Tomas discover while they explore her options and speak to a range of medical professionals, who range in demeanor from kind and empathetic to brusque and dismissive. At the forefront of Anja’s concerns is how she can possibly break this news to her children, who already had to face the prospect of losing her once before. What’s more, she’s at the end of her rope with Tomas; their relationship has been rocky for a long time, and Anja is in no mood to spare him — or anyone — the honest truth as she tries to make the holidays special for her kids while grappling with her own mortality.
Sødahl’s script gives Hovig so much to work with. Hovig, in turn, delivers a passionate, powerful performance as a woman battered by a relentless barrage of bad news mixed with slivers of optimism and hope. Skarsgård matches her skilfully; the scenes in which Anja and Tomas discuss the history and future of their relationship are devastatingly honest. Love, regret, anger, comfort, resentment — there are so many feelings swirling around these two, and the way they navigate them while staring down the barrel of the gun pointed at Anja’s head makes for riveting drama. — Betsy Bozdech
Team #MOTW’s comments:
Leslie Combemale Norwegian Oscar submission Hope (original title Håp) is a relationship movie about messy, committed love. Though the film is centered on someone struggling with cancer, writer/director Maria Sødahl doesn’t create a shiny, Hollywood ‘cancer film’. She reveals many aspects of what it’s like to face mortality, from the perspective of a woman and mother, as well as from those standing by, like the children and the partner who love her, and does so with such truth, that the film will resonate with a wide variety of viewers. The film will also resonate with most who are in or have had long term relationships, which often involve complications, resentments, and the experience of repeatedly falling out of and back into love. Read full review.
Sandie Angulo Chen: Norwegian writer-director Maria Sødahl’s semi-autobiographical film Hope isn’t so much a cancer drama as a relationship drama. The entire movie takes place over a holiday week — beginning Dec. 23 and ending Jan. 2, during which the main character Anja (Andrea Bræin Hovig in an amazing performance) is given an unthinkably grim diagnosis — brain cancer that’s a metastases of a previously discovered lung cancer. Anja and her partner Tomas (Stellan Skarsgård, also excellent) must figure out how to deal with the news of the relapse, schedule necessary appointments and treatment, and tell their blended family (three kids ages 10-16 as well as Tomas’ older three children from a previous marriage) the news. Hovig is mesmerizing as Anja, who is brutally honest about her feelings about everything from the state of their 20-year-partnership, favoring her children over his, and wanting (or not wanting) him to find another partner after she dies. In one moment of clarity, Tomas wonders aloud to his best friend that he doesn’t know what’s the medication, what’s her fear of dying, or what’s Anja when she speaks so candidly and intensely. One theme of the film, which is inspired by Sødahl’s own cancer journey — is that facing death reveals more about life. Although Hope was Norway’s submission to the Academy Awards, it was shortlisted, but not nominated. Still, the highly personal and powerful film is deserving of acclaim and a wider audience.
Sherin Nicole A quotidian exploration of how differently we each deal with our own mortality and that of those we love. Writer/director Maria Sødahl keeps her scenes tight, nearly claustrophobic, immersing us in intimacy and tension. Which makes the family and the couple Hope revolves around that much more familiar. However, the desperation and occasional despair the film so compassionately reveals does not overcome the too steady pacing. Therefore the sentiments do not truly linger. But still there is love here and because of that one cannot deny the film’s truth.
Nikki Baughan: Maria Sodhal follows up 2010’s Limbo with another quiet yet powerful exploration of relationships under pressure; in this case, a shocking cancer diagnosis. Andrea Braein Hovig and Stellan Skarsgaard put in sterling performances as the long-term couple whose stale relationship is shaken up by the terminal illness. Writer/director at Sodhal – who drew on her own experiences – eschews overwrought melodrama and obvious emotional cues in favour of deeply felt observation, and delivers a film of raw realism and genuine humanity.
Pam Grady: Writer/director Maria Sødahl’s own experience with a terminal cancer diagnosis informs this heartfelt film. With the holidays approaching, Anja (Andrea Bræin Hovig) gets the news that not only has the cancer she thought vanquished a year ago returned, but it is now in her brain. Her prognosis is dire, which would seem to suggest a grim medical drama in the offing. Indeed, there are many scenes in doctors’ offices and hospitals, but Sødahl has little interest in the details of sickness. Instead, she focuses her attention on Anja’s relationship with her longtime partner Tomas (Stellan Skarsgård). Living under the same roof in a house full of their children, the two busy artists long ago lost track of one another. Her diagnosis brings the couple’s estrangement into sharp relief, but also points a way forward as Anja’s illness acts as a catalyst that forces them to reconsider their bond and rediscover one another. Far from a cancer tale, Hope is, instead, a moving, mature love story, one that soars on the strength of Hovig and Skarsgård’s deeply felt performances.
Marilyn Ferdinand Scandinavian filmmakers seem to have a particular affinity for stories of troubled marriages. Along with the brilliant marital dramas of such luminaries as Ingmar Bergman and Jan Troell, we must add Maria Sødahl’s masterful film Hope. Two of the world’s finest actors, Andrea Bræin Hovig and Stellan Skarsgård, play Anja and Tomas, a long-time couple with a large, blended family of adult and dependent children and careers in the creative arts that consume much of their time and emotional investment. Their world is turned upside down when they learn that the lung cancer Anja was treated for a year before has metastasized to her brain. Sødahl, who also wrote the screenplay, settles Anja and Tomas into a rich environment filled with friends, holiday celebrations, and everyday family life and strife, while the couple faces their emotional alienation as they negotiate Anja’s medical crisis. It is a privilege to see two titans of cinema, under Sødahl’s sensitive direction, create not only two, separate individuals, but also the “one” they have struggled for nearly two decades to become. Their intimate moments are handled with complexity and understanding, illuminating what it means to be human and face not only the fear of death, but also the fear of intimacy.
Loren King 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. Read full review.
Jennifer Merin In Norway’s 2021 Oscar contender, writer/director Maria Sødahl gives us a brilliant and very personal film based on her own true story about her battle with cancer. She’d received a terminal diagnosis that led to a nine-year hiatus from filmmaking. Her last film before the diagnosis was Limbo in 2010. And what a wonderful return to her craft she has achieved in Hope. Anja (Andrea Bræin Hovig, who’s won multiple awards for her performance) and Tomas (Stellan Skarsgård, Chernobyl) have a large family of biological children and stepchildren. Over a number of years the two partners have grown apart and independent of each other, with busy creative careers in parallel worlds. When Anja gets terminal cancer diagnosis their life breaks down and exposes the neglected love. Alone with her grief and her fears, Anja realizes that she needs Tomas’ full help and support, and the two embark on a challenging journey in which they discover themselves and each other anew.
Susan Wloszczyna: It takes some cinematic guts for a filmmaker to base a movie on their own harrowing encounter with a terminal cancer diagnosis that eventually led to a nine-year hiatus from their craft. With Hope, Norwegian writer/director Maria Sodahl doesn’t just make a comeback, but she also delivers a no-holds-barred accounting of a relationship of an unmarried couple with six children of various ages between them whose romantic inclinations have grown stale as the pair focus on their own creative pursuits. Read full review.
Marina Antunes There are ups and downs in every relationship but Maria Sødahl’s Hope elevates the drama by adding a wrench of terminal illness into the mix. Based on Sødahl’s own personal struggle with cancer, the writer/director’s new film is a powerful, beautiful, and at times uncomfortably raw exploration of a relationship in flux. Led by a brilliant performance from Andrea Bræin Hovig, Hope is both a difficult and beautiful watch.
Cate Marquis In writer/director Maria Sodahl’s autobiographically-based Hope, Norway’s Oscar submission, we are immersed in a moving relationship drama with brilliant performances by Stellan Skarsgard and Andrea Bræin Hovig. Sodahl makes a stunning return to film-making with this drama, based in part on her own battle with cancer. Anja (Hovig) and Tomas (Skarsgard) share a home and several children and stepchildren, but they have drifted apart over the years, each wrapped up in their own creative careers. Immediately before Christmas, a persistent headache and trouble reading drives Anja to see a doctor, where she learns she has an incurable brain tumor. Hope puts the spotlight on Anja’s personal journey coming to grips with the diagnosis but also explores the couple’s effort to rediscover their bond, a journey further elevated by stunning acting by both Hovig and Skarsgard and elegant photography, as Sodahl skillfully builds to dramatic and satisfying conclusion.
Director: Maria Sødahl
Release Date: April 16, 2021
Running Time: 130 minutes
Language: Norwegian with English subtitles
Screenwriter: Maria Sødahl
Distribution Company: KimStim Films
AWFJ Movie of the Week Panel Members: Sandie Angulo Chen, Marina Antunes, Nikki Baughan, Betsy Bozdech, Leslie Combemale, Marilyn Ferdinand, Pam Grady, MaryAnn Johanson, Loren King, Cate Marquis, Jennifer Merin, Nell Minow, Sherin Nicole, Liz Whittemore, Susan Wloszczyna
Edited by Jennifer Merin