fri 14/08/2020

Phoenix review - Norwegian family tragedy with an autobiographical slant | reviews, news & interviews

Phoenix review - Norwegian family tragedy with an autobiographical slant

Phoenix review - Norwegian family tragedy with an autobiographical slant

Mesmerising child performers but Camilla Strøm Henriksen's debut doesn't quite deliver

Coping alone: Yvla Bjørkaas Thedin as Jill

“You’re so meticulous,” says Astrid (Maria Bonnevie) to her teenage daughter Jill (impressive newcomer Yvla Bjørkaas Thedin) as they create a batik artwork together at the kitchen table. Little son Bo (Casper Falck-Løvås) looks on as he munches a jam sandwich. A happy domestic scene? Anything but. “Meticulous” isn’t even really a compliment, coming from this chaotic, mentally fragile mother.

This is Norwegian writer/director Camilla Strøm Henriksen’s first feature film (she’s working now on episodes of the TV series Occupied) and she has extracted remarkable performances from these young actors, perhaps partly because it’s an autobiographical work. Henriksen took the role of adult when growing up with a younger brother, an absent father and an unstable mother.

And when the film sticks to the basics of this terrible, dysfunctional dynamic and the closeted world of the mother's Oslo flat with its over-spilling ashtrays, heavy fabrics, tie-dyed clothes and deep colours, it’s mesmerising (David Yates of the last four Harry Potter films is an executive producer). Unfortunately the tension isn’t sustained throughout.phoenixAstrid is a troubled artist, a depressed, self-absorbed alcoholic who spends most of the day in bed lying beneath one of her creations, a headboard of entwined tree-like shapes (pictured above, Maria Bonnevie with Casper Falck-Løvås as Bo). Jill, aged 13, is the adult in the family, keeping the house ticking over, doing the cooking, trying to second-guess her mother’s moods. “You’re so pretty and talented,” she tells Astrid, hoping to encourage her when she gets a job interview at a gallery. She knows that paranoia followed by self-sabotage is all too likely.

Jill is constantly watchful, knowing that the most innocuous comment can send her mother over the edge. Even a note from school that Astrid has to sign for Bo provokes a near breakdown. Astrid can be cruel, too. “You have us,” Jill protests one evening, trying to stop her mother from going out and getting drunk the night before the interview. “It isn’t enough,” says Astrid brutally as she storms out, leaving Jill to comfort Bo and make dinner.

The tension in the family is gripping and oppressive. There are no school friends, no outside influences apart from Ellen (Kiersti Sandal), who's the instigator of the gallery job, and Astrid's ex, jazz musician Nils (Sverrir Gudnason, pictured below, last seen in The Girl in The Spider's Web and as Bjorn Borg in Borg vs McEnroe) who keeps in occasional contact and swans into town on Jill’s 14th birthday. He’s almost as useless a parent as Astrid.phoenixWhen Nils whisks Bo and Jill, wearing a sequined birthday dress and looking, incongruously, more and more like Taylor Swift, off to his pristine new flat, with its bare surfaces, white sectional sofas and mirrored walls, the spell is broken and the film begins to look like an ad for Scandi interiors. His character is too weak and shallow to inspire much interest and his saxophone-playing in a nightclub is an unimpressive aside. But still, what works is the sadness in the fact that his kids adore him and are prepared to let him off the hook every time.

By this time, Jill is hiding a terrible secret, and it’s a tribute to her powerful acting that we almost believe in her ability to compartmentalise. But as she becomes more disconnected from reality, she starts to hallucinate – those trees on the headboard grow tendrils all over Bo as he sleeps, and her mother’s bag takes on a monstrous life of its own. At one point it seems that Bo is sharing her visions, which makes sense as these siblings only have each other to rely on. But the intensity of their sad world is clear enough without introducing jarring magical realism. Perhaps Henriksen is too close to her subject matter in this directorial debut, but its power and promise are undeniable.

Jill knows that even the most innocuous comment can send her mother over the edge


Editor Rating: 
Average: 3 (1 vote)

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