Film & TV

Building Love from Bad News

Andrea Bræin Hovig and Stellan Skarsgård in Hope. (Agnete Brun)
Maria Sodahl’s elegant film ‘Hope’ is surprisingly reassuring.

You’re going to want to bail on this review after you read the next sentence, but don’t, because there’s a twist coming. Hope is a delicate Norwegian drama about a woman diagnosed with terminal cancer. But it’s not really about that. It doesn’t become clear until the final, perfect, wordless image of the film, but Hope is actually reassuring, in its way.

Tenderly written and directed by Maria Sodahl after her own cancer diagnosis, the film begins in triumph, with the premiere of a brilliant ballet choreographed by Anja (subtly portrayed by Andrea Bræin Hovig), who is living with her partner of 20 years, a producer named Tomas (Stellan Skarsgård). The pair have never married but they are raising six children together, three of them from his previous marriage.

Without directly addressing the topic, the film makes it clear that something has gone awry in this relationship. Tomas and Anja are polite to each other, but there’s a chill in the air, a distance, a silence. On the surface the pair preside over a large, bustling family, but when the two are alone, there seems to be very little to say. He didn’t even bother attending her premiere, and doesn’t much seem to care how it went over.

And here comes the cancer. It’s two days before Christmas, and Anja learns that the lung cancer she fought last year has metastasized to her brain. There is a huge tumor and a sac of fluid around it. The pressure can be alleviated with steroids, for now, and the tumor can be excised, but her chance of survival is nil. Or is it? One doctor notes that he has known a few patients who made it through. Hence, the title of the film. Or at least that detail is one of the title’s foundations. There’s another one.

Navigating the holidays with family and friends, Anja has to hold her breath about her illness because so many medical professionals are unavailable around Christmas. She has to deal with telling her children and her sense of irresponsibility about being a lifelong smoker. But the matter that comes to the fore is her bond with Tomas. If you’re like me, you probably hate films dealing with cancer because it’s too easy to imagine hearing such a diagnosis in your own family. But Hope doesn’t put the viewer through the wringer in these early scenes. And in the second half, the medical problem isn’t really the principal issue. The lack of trust in the couple’s relationship has metastasized into a lack of seriousness and purpose as well. If films are any guide, in Europe, infidelity is not necessarily a deal-breaker in relationships. There has been infidelity in this one, but that isn’t the only source of what’s so itchy and uncomfortable in this seemingly happy 20-year union. At first, Anja tells Tomas that she wants him to find someone else after she is gone, mainly for the sake of the children, but later she bitterly retracts this, seeking to penalize him for all that’s gone wrong.

Anja’s diagnosis shines a light on something we all face in marriage or long-term relationships, and combined with mania brought on by her use of steroids, it brings her to understanding the unspoken void in her home. Sooner or later, we all have to venture through our last portal alone, but what we need to know at the end is that someone is there for us, someone has our back, someone cares. As Tomas starts to behave like a truly devoted husband, he even proposes marriage, albeit in a back-handed way. Still, she is impressed. With her birthday falling on New Year’s Eve, the family decide to whip up a triple celebration in the face of impending doom.

And it pretty much all happened this way in the filmmaker’s life: “The story, time-wise, takes place over one week, one Christmas, my marriage and my birthday,” Sodahl has said. “All of this is 100% what happened. The entire medical story is very accurate, with the hospital being closed at Christmas time.” The personal, intimate aspect of this story comes across in every frame.

The final scenes of the movie are beautiful, enchanting even: Sodahl’s screenplay is, in that Scandinavian way, clipped and delicate, but the images say everything. It took the worst news to draw this couple together, but they genuinely commit to each other in a way that rebukes cancer and death, pushing them to the margins. Marriage, it turns out, matters deeply, even in the kinds of cultures where people dismiss it as “a piece of paper.” If death cannot be conquered, it can be placed in perspective, and in facing the end, Anja and Tomas rediscover why achieving committed love is, along with raising our children, the most important work we do as human beings.

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