A lush tribute to northern soul

Yes, Hans Petter Moland's new film <i>Aberdeen </i>is also set in Scotland, also stars Stellan Skarsgard and also has a fine performance from a young actress, but it's not Breaking the Waves II. For one thing, it's very funny.
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Samarkand, Alexandria, Casablanca, even Philadelphia... There are some places, however prosaic to their actual inhabitants, which have names rich and resonant enough to seduce in the titles of poems, books and movies. Aberdeen is not one of them. Despite its long history, it lacks romantic glamour, and despite its recent importance as an oil town, it hardly has a reputation for interestingly mean streets and brutal modernity.

Samarkand, Alexandria, Casablanca, even Philadelphia... There are some places, however prosaic to their actual inhabitants, which have names rich and resonant enough to seduce in the titles of poems, books and movies. Aberdeen is not one of them. Despite its long history, it lacks romantic glamour, and despite its recent importance as an oil town, it hardly has a reputation for interestingly mean streets and brutal modernity.

Undeterred, the Norwegian director Hans Petter Moland has made "Aberdeen" the title of his first English-language film, a British-Norwegian co-production that receives its UK premiere tonight at the Edinburgh Film Festival. Aberdonians may be disappointed that their city figures only briefly as the destination of a journey that starts in Norway and continues, mainly calamitously, via Harwich, London, Leeds, Glasgow and Edinburgh itself. On the other hand, despite Moland's insistence that his story "could happen anywhere", one fascination of the film is the theme of the emotional ties and resonances between Scandinavia and Scotland.

Moland is not, of course, the first director to venture into this territory. Comparisons with Lars Van Trier's sensational Breaking the Waves (1994) understandably annoy him, but they are inevitable when his own film also stars the marvellous Stellan Skarsgard, reprising his role as a Norwegian whose work on the oil rigs has involved him with a Scottish woman, and also pivots on the extraordinary performance of a young British actress. Here, however, the similarities end. In Aberdeen, Skarsgard is not the vigorous romantic struck down by cruel fate, but a hopeless loser who has ruined his own life with alcoholism and long ago given up on anything resembling responsibility. The electrifying female performance comes from Lena Headey as his daughter Kiana, in a role that could scarcely differ more from Emily Watkinson's simple-hearted child of nature.

A smart-ass sophisticated lawyer in London, Kiana isn't pleased when forced by her dying mother in Scotland to go to Norway and (literally) drag her embarrassing father out of the bar and back to Aberdeen. Almost his first action is to throw up all over her expensive car and yuppie suit on the road to Bergen.

Staggering out into the snowy desolation, terrified by a couple of passing reindeer, and unable to bathe in the lake because she can't swim, she yells memorably: "There's too much f***ing nature in this country!"

Significantly, this is almost the only time that Moland makes any direct use of the desolate landscape that Scots and Norwegians share, and which is such an inspiration for north European film-makers. Nature in Aberdeen is largely absent, or at least present merely as the relentless rain and wind beating on car windows, or the alternation of cold darkness and cold light in city streets, motorway cafés, bars and the hospital room where Kiana's mother waits for her dysfunctional family. It makes it all too understandable why alcoholism, a defence not only against personal failure but also the ghastly weather, should be so characteristic a curse of the northern soul, from Aberdeen to Archangelsk.

Moland freely admits that part of his inspiration came from the experience of alcoholism in his own family. "This is a film about addiction," he says, and his sensitive script and direction provide Skarsgard with the opportunity to create an alcoholic more appallingly and poignantly authentic than any other I have seen on stage or screen.

No punches are pulled in showing the dreadful social and physical degradation, but Skarsgard never hams it up, whether he is humiliating his ambitious daughter with his beery bonhomie in her plate-glass London offices, pissing his trousers as the Leeds police carry him off to the slammer, or begging a drink from a gang of Edinburgh thugs who treat him like a circus animal.

Conversely, as the journey challenges Tomas to rediscover his basic decency, intelligence and capacity to act as a responsible father, Skarsgard always retains the ambiguity of a man for whom sobriety is both a hope and a potentially unbearable torment. The mature virtuoso performance from the Norwegian star is terrific, but not exactly a surprise. What is more startling is the achievement of the comparatively inexperienced Headey as Kiana. She is an actress whose combination of extravagant good looks and self-effacing modesty may perversely have hindered her from getting the serious parts she deserves, but in Aberdeen she shows extraordinary power and range.

As in many road movies, the two protagonists have a tendency to role reversal as the journey progresses, but while for Tomas the development from sodden despair to qualified hope is comparatively straightforward, Kiana undergoes a more complex transformation as her brittle confidence collapses, revealing her own version of addiction and her desperate need for her flawed father.

You start by watching Headey mainly for her arresting beauty, but end up hypnotised by her capacity to project ugliness, arrogance, redeeming humour and sheer childish vulnerability.

Aberdeen is essentially a duet between Skarsgard and Headey, but would be nothing like as good without the well-judged and, if the word is not inappropriate, sober contributions of the rest of the small but very distinguished cast. Charlotte Rampling plays Kiana's mother, and while she is only on screen for a total of 10 minutes, it is her decision that sets the plot in motion, and her desire for reconciliation that presides, invisibly and obscurely, over the journey of father and daughter.

It is important to add that for all its seriousness, Aberdeen is a very funny movie, and for all its bleakly modern settings, it has its own romance. "Most road-movies are about escape," the director comments, "but Aberdeen is about trying to reach a goal."

However you rate the success of the characters in reaching that goal, the film certainly gives the city's name a wistful resonance it never before possessed.

Aberdeen, UK premiere tonight, UGC Cinema , Edinburgh (0131-229 2550) 20.30

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