The Tenacity of “Hope”

The Tenacity of “Hope” April 18, 2021

Please don’t let the dark-sounding subject matter of Hope prevent you from seeing it.  Yes, it’s difficult to watch a family wrestle with a terminal cancer diagnosis, but the predominant state the film leaves you with is that of the title.

Remarkably, this film by Norwegian writer/director Maria Sødahl is substantially autobiographical.  The terminal brain cancer diagnosis, the blended family of six children, the partner substantially older than she is, the frantic search for medical professionals at the start of Christmas holidays, the steroid-facilitated existential reckoning:  all these are drawn from Sødahl’s life.

Hope’s two main protagonists, Anja and Tomas, start the film as near-strangers sharing a bed.  Their artistic careers often land them in different cities, and Anja (Andrea Bræin Hovig) leans more heavily on her friend Vera (Gjertrud L. Jynge) than her partner Tomas (Stellan Skarsgård).

Anja and Tomas, in “Hope”

Pragmatic frankness rather than affection now characterizes the relationship between Anja and Tomas.  Upon hearing her diagnosis, Anja tells him she’s fully aware she can’t count on him for moral support.  Likewise, she urges Tomas to find a new partner once she’s gone, believing him inadequate to solo parent the three school-aged children they’ve had together.

After blunt, the next adjective that comes to mind to describe this film is authentic.  No doubt, its autobiographical nature contributes to its air of realism.  Buttressing this further, Hope is thoroughly grounded in time, as intertitles break the narrative into day-long chapters, starting on December 23rd.  There’s also a firm sense of place, with its scenes set in the streets, homes, hospitals, and churches of Oslo.  Sødahl’s use of external music solely at the open and close of her film enhances the realistic feel, too.

As a physician, I’d be remiss if I didn’t add that Sødahl’s film is one of the best cinematic depictions of medical culture in recent memory.  All seventeen healthcare professionals in Hope are indeed medical people from Oslo, and they plausibly run the gamut from empathic to harried and unhelpful.  Like many an oncologist, the first physician takes evasive action when Anja asks how much time she’s got left.  Only a later tact-deficient radiologist lets slip that she’s probably looking at four more weeks.

Among the actors, there’s nary a weak performance to be found.  Andrea Bræin Hovig is new to me, but she offers a masterclass.  On Day 1, her character is given a walloping dose of steroids to bring her brain swelling down, and over the next few days onscreen, Hovig plays Anja with a mountingly manic intensity.  As viewers, we’re not sure where the drug effects end, and where the staring-mortality-in-the-face clarity begins.

Stellan Skarsgård is far more familiar, his prolific career ranging from Marvel to Lars von Trier, and he doesn’t coast here.  As Tomas, he’s doing his best to be bravely present, but his wrecked, shellshocked state is barely submerged.

The wobbly handheld camerawork takes some getting used to, but I understand why Sødahl and her DP Manuel Alberto Claro went this route.  The following shots of Anja, and the frequent closeups that keep only her and Tomas onscreen, valuably contribute to Hope’s intimacy.

Anja with her daughter Julie (Elli Rhiannon Müller Osborne), in “Hope”

Hope’s bracingly honest dialogue brought to mind the domestic dramas of Ingmar Bergman.  In particular, I thought of Fanny and Alexander:  both open at Christmastime with extended family and close friends brought together, both have a mortally ill parent, and both strongly feature discord largely kept behind closed doors.  About all that’s missing to make the parallel complete is Bergman’s obsessive religious neuroticism.  The Scandinavia portrayed in Hope is post-Christian, where churches offer a meaning-devoid setting for ritual.  When the kids attend a Christmas Eve service to placate Grandpa, they all laugh afterwards about the embarrassing sermon and the pastor’s bowl cut.  Purpose for this family is derived from here-and-now connections.

The film’s title refers to the irrational optimism inherent to our humanity, even when facing an imminently terminal prognosis.  (Then again, the fact that Sødahl is alive ten years after her brain cancer diagnosis conveys the deep truth Jim Carrey hit upon in Dumb and Dumber:  a one-in-a-million chance is still a chance.)

More significantly, Hope speaks to the malleable possibility of our bonds.  Over the several days depicted in this film, as Tomas supports Anja far more than she anticipated, both start to wonder if there’s something worth salvaging between them.  As long as we breathe, we can still better ourselves and our relationships.

(Hope is available for home viewing through arthouse cinema websites like this one.)

(Image credit for star rating: Yasir72.multan CC BY-SA 3.0 )

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