Utøya: July 22 (Utøya 22. Juli)

Norway (2018) Dir. Erik Poppe

Single take films must be the most challenging to make for a director, the cast and the poor cameraman (whilst giving the editor an easy ride), but in the right hands, can produce some exhilarating cinema, like the recent Japanese hit One Cut Of The Dead. In this instance, it is the tale of an infamous massacre that benefits from this tricky method.

The backdrop for the story is the events of July 22nd 2011, when a car bomb exploded in Oslo as a protest against the Norwegian Labour government. Meanwhile, for a group of 500 teens at political summer camp at the nearby island of Utøya the horror becomes real for them when armed right-wing extremist Anders Breivik arrives at the camp and opens fire indiscriminately, eventually killing 77 people.

Based on genuine accounts from survivors but supplanted by fictional characters, the central protagonist is Kaja (Andrea Berntzen), a levelheaded teen separated from her bratty younger sister Emilie (Elli Rhiannon Müller Osbourne) when the gunman’s attacks forces everyone to flee the camp. During the course of the next 72 minutes, Kaja witnesses many horrors and faces imminent danger as she searches for her sister.

In some cases, the single take film feels like a vanity project for arty directors to show off but Erik Poppe is fully justified in making Utøya: July 22 this way. It not only puts the audience in the same terrifying space as the young victims in this shocking tale but also allows Poppe to give them all an agency in capturing their emotions and reactions to this horrific scenario.

Norway is noted as being one of the safest countries in the world, something Kaja even tells her mother via a phone conversation at the start of the film to convince her she and Emilie are fine. As Kaja opines, they are on an island so what could possibly happen to them? Unfortunately, she didn’t reckon on the resolve and dogged insanity of Breivik to make the 40 km journey to Utøya to continue his villainous mission.

The camp is held on behalf the Labour Party youth members – Kaja later admits she has ideas of entering into politics – so Brievik targeting them isn’t as random as it might seem but remains morally reprehensible. Poppe resists the urge to use his film as a political soapbox – he doesn’t need to, that this scenario is heinous enough speaks for itself – instead focusing on the victims and the bravery of the survivors.

Reflecting the kneejerk reactions of the public to such an occurrence, the teens discuss who might have been responsible for the car bomb in Oslo, with Al Qaeda being the early favourite, although calmer minds insist this is a conclusion that shouldn’t be easily jumped to. Little did they know the perpetrator was a fellow compatriot.

Birevik, it should be noted, is never shown in full during the film, only a shadowy figure in the distance while his ominous presence through the gunshots constantly ringing out is a chilling reminder that his threat is very real. Bodies are strewn throughout the forest paths behind the camp and huddled masses of distraught teens hide in crevices in the cliff on the sea front are the result of this.

Kaja is less heroine and more totem of the will to survive as she searches for her sister, last seen when they argued about Emilie’s unruly behaviour and slovenly attitude. In her wake, Kaja meets a young boy Tobias (Magnus Moen), paralysed by fear as he waits for his brother, and a girl (Solveig Koløen Birkeland) who has already been shot in the back, but does not abandon them offering as much help as she can.  

As you might expect, self-preservation is a default setting in times of panic and even though it exists here too, it is depicted not through selfishness but the sheer fear of too many bodies putting them in danger. Kaja finds a temporary sanctuary in the cliff side with a small group including Magnus (Aleksander Holmen), a wannabe celeb, whose talent so far has been to say the wrong thing at the wrong time.

The central single take clocks in at just under 83 minutes of the 93-minute runtime; the opening shows genuine CCTV footage of the Oslo car bombing and the subsequent panic it created. Poppe prefaces the end credits with the upsetting statistics of Brievik’s attack – 77 dead, 99 seriously wounded and 300 suffering from posttraumatic stress.

Poppe filmed five takes of the main act opting to use the fourth take for the final cut which must have taken its toll on the inexperienced cast having to be word perfect, hit all their cues, and convey the range of emotions on demand for a week straight. Clearly, they pulled it off and with aplomb, with little touches, like a mosquito landing on a dead girl’s arm adding a naturalism that no amount of preparation can achieve.

Leading the cast as Kaja, Andrea Berntzen is the anchor of the whole film and is nothing short of formidable in her debut role. From her composed, sanguine first appearance to the fraught but resolute fighter she becomes in the end, this remarkable performance is certainly one way to announce your arrival in the world of acting, buttressed by solid support from her able fellow novices.

Cameraman Martin Otterbeck also deserves praise for being there every step of the way, deftly flitting between casual observer and intimate companion as the mood demands, never getting in the way of the cast yet never missing a beat. Whilst the violence is kept off screen, tension is still palpable through the performances and the febrile mise-en-scene Otterbeck’s lens creates.

Utøya: July 22 might seem an unnecessary film to make but is a vital to watch in helping to understand what most of us, hopefully, will never face. A breathless and breathtaking viewing experience of immense power and potency.