The average non-Scandinavian might harbour certain preconceived notions about Christmas in Norway. Does Bent Hamar’s film feature hymns sung in no-nonsense wooden churches? Do gruff, stoic blondes in woolly jumpers make do amid the grim winter? Yes indeed. However, there’s no corresponding chill to this film. The story, adapted from a book of short stories by Levi Henriksen, follows the intertwining Christmas Eve fortunes of several people in the fictional town of Skogli.
Most of the film takes place at night – interactions take place in little islands of light, warm stages set with vivid Scandinavian colour. There is a delicious feel for hues and faces. Perhaps the most eloquent is the twitchy countenance of Paul, whose recently estranged wife will not let him see their children. Trond Fausa Aurvaag brings an electric fervour to a character rigid with disbelief at the blows the holiday season is dealing him, earning the unique honour of involvement in perhaps the saddest and most searingly awkward sequence ever filmed in a Santa suit.
Dialogue is richly natural – Hamar avoids both excessive rehearsal and post-production dubbing. However, the film’s heart comes from his artful appreciation of situation and character – an eye for the little details that speak volumes. A determined but logistically hopeless confrontation between a bedstead and a narrow staircase can deliver the same pained laughs as a doctor’s counsel for desperate Paul: “33 was never a very good age for a man around Christmas”.
Best watched at yuletide – a tinselly glow might help to take the mawkish edges off the nativity/redemption plotline, for one thing. But ultimately, anything truly threatening schmaltz is tempered by genuine poignance. The naturalness is sharpened by deft touches of subtle surrealism – a beautifully decorated Christmas tree blazes sudden and inexplicable out of the frozen forest. The Northern Lights appear as blessing or guide. Despite one or two flaws, this is a warm and well-crafted tale of the significance of home and the kindnesses, cruelties, hopes and regrets that can make up a Christmas.