Dir: Erik Poppe; Starring: Andrea Berntzen, Aleksander Holmen, Solveig Koløen Birkeland, Brede Fristad, Elli Rhiannon Müller Osborne, Jenny Svennevig. Cert 15, 95 mins
By some perverse quirk of release dating, Utøya – July 22 comes out in British cinemas a few days before Halloween. If it wasn’t based on such a gut-wrenching and tragic true life story, this might seem like a quintessential horror movie in the John Carpenter mould. Teenagers are trapped on an island as a lone killer comes after them. No one, though, will feel any pleasure in the grim events that director Erik Poppe shows here.
Poppe’s approach is very different to that of Paul Greengrass in his admirable recent Netflix film about the same event. The Norwegian director isn’t trying to put Anders Breivik’s homicidal rampage in the summer of 2011 into political or historical context. He isn’t investigating the aftermath or assessing why Breivik flipped. His film is entirely from the point of view of the young victims. Breivik’s attack on Utøya lasted for 72 minutes. The film isn’t much longer and unfolds in real time, with hardly any cutting. It doesn’t offer catharsis or explanation. When its characters spend so much of the time lying face down in the mud or clinging, limpet-like, to rocks as they try to avoid Breivik, there is little chance of making sense of the carnage anyway. The killer’s name is left out of the film and he is only glimpsed very briefly in the distance. Everyone knows he is there by the monotonous sound of his guns going off again and again.
Poppe’s “one take” shooting style traps his protagonists in a continual present. “You’ll never understand,” Kaja (Andrea Berntzen), the young heroine is heard saying into her phone at the start of the film. The natural assumption is that she is telling the audience that the events on the late afternoon of that July day defy comprehension. In fact, she is calling a relative. The government quarter in Oslo 40km away may just have been bombed, but the idealistic Norwegian teenagers at the summer camp on Utøya have no sense at all that they’re in any danger. They think they’re in “the safest place in the world”.
This early part of the film is so uncomfortable to watch precisely because we as viewers know what is in store for the youngsters. They discuss politics. Kaja is annoyed with her sister, Emilie, who has been swimming and playing around in spite of the dark events on the mainland. She is irritated, too, that Emilie has borrowed her jumper without asking.
Screenwriters Siv Rajendram Eliassen and Anna Bache-Wiig have created fictional characters for the film but everything that happens to them is based closely on the real experiences of the victims and survivors.
Certain background details not evident from either the news reports or from Greengrass’s film are brought out here. The ground, we quickly discover, is very wet under foot. It may be July but there is a chill in the air. At first, no one pays much attention to the strange noises which they assume are either firecrackers or a drill.
The camera follows the youngsters as they take refuge in what looks like a schoolhouse and then flee into the woods.
Poppe concentrates on capturing the sheer hellishness of the teenagers’ experiences. Nothing makes sense. It appears at first that the police are the ones doing the shooting. As citizens of an affluent Nordic country, the teenagers naturally believe that the authorities will soon sort the problem out. The authorities, though, simply don’t arrive. Mobile phone coverage may be patchy but they can still talk to their parents or text them. The parents are too far away to help. It seems that, in a matter of minutes, all social norms have crumbled – and all the supportive adults have vanished.
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Although it is very closely based on fact, much of the film has a surrealistic quality. Kaja will be shown lying in the undergrowth as other teenagers run in desperation past her, either in packs or on their own. We will hear the popping of the killer’s guns on the soundtrack. It is as if everyone is caught in a collective nightmare in which time slows down. Their precious phones take on a sinister quality. They are a link with the outside world but a ringtone or vibration can give their whereabouts away and draw the killer on to them.
In the chaos, it is hard for the filmmakers to develop character or deal in detail with the relationships between the teenagers. The private drama here comes from Kaja’s quest to find her missing sister. It’s apparent she is not going to save herself unless she saves Emilie too. She has promised her parents as much. There is also the hint of a romantic sub-plot. Magnus (Aleksander Holmen) is attracted to Kaja. He confides that the only reason he came to the island was to pick up girls anyway. At a moment of extreme peril, the two have a bizarre but strangely touching conversation in which they talk about what they would most like to do if they weren’t being shot at by a maniac. One dreams of a “nice hot bath”. The other yearns to be in the final of a big football competition.
Th film is full of heartrending moments. For example, a victim will leave her phone and we will catch a glimpse of a screen image of the last person she was trying to contact (inevitably, her mother). “Could you tell my mum that I was thinking of her and that I love everyone,” a dying teenager will murmur.
At first, you wonder why on earth Poppe wanted to make a film dealing with such an appalling event in the first place. He is risking trampling on the still raw feelings of the survivors and on those of the relatives of the dead. However, the rationale behind the project slowly becomes apparent. In the news reports, the 69 who died during the attack on the island and the many others who suffered horrific injury and trauma were seen simply as passive and anonymous victims while the killer hijacked the headlines. Poppe wants to turn this perspective the other way round so that our focus is entirely on the teenagers and the killer is the one who fades into the background.
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