Hope (Håp)

Norway (2019) Dir. Maria Sødahl

“This is my story as I remember it.”

By rights, this film shouldn’t exist as writer-director Maria Sødahl, fresh of the success of her 2010 debut film Limbo was diagnosed with brain cancer in 2011 and given three months to live. Said to be incurable, Sødahl not only defied this prognosis and is still alive today, but she also felt strong enough to tell her story to the world.

Anja (Andrea Braein Hovig) is a forty-something professional woman in a two-decade relationship with the older Tomas (Stellan Skarsgård), with a large combined stepfamily from previous marriages as well as their own. On Christmas Eve, a year after being told she had beaten lung cancer, Anja learns the cancer has returned in the form of a metastasis in her brain, and an operation is vital.

However, there is no cure and it will only prolong her life by a short time, but Anja’s biggest concern is how to tell the children, having already made on Christmas miserable for them. Various consultations with doctors and surgeons offer varying degrees of hope regarding the effectiveness of the operation but nothing concrete on the aftermath. For Anja and Tomas this is a real test of their relationship.

None of us really knows how we would react to the news that we had an incurable tumour growing in our brain. It’s not something we specifically expect to hear during our lifetime but the possibly is always there. Maria Sødahl wanted to share with us her personal experience of being in such a situation with Hope, yet this isn’t a self-indulgent or insular film, instead it sheds plenty of light on the sinuous process involved in dealing with it.

Even with the opening disclaimer, this doesn’t feel particularly autobiographical nor is it an exercise in seeking sympathy at any point, preferring a raw, matter-of-fact approach to the narrative. The dramatisation aspect of it is clear but never deleterious to the film’s emotional impact, offering a uniquely general perspective rather than an enclosed one featuring just Anja and Tomas.

Sødahl manages to achieve this despite the two characters spending 90% of the screen time together, allowing both to share the burden of the shock of the diagnosis and the ensuing arrangements that are required. It is a tale of love but not a maudlin or overtly romanticised one given the dour subject matter; Sødahl has gone for a profound and heartfelt look at how the relationship navigates this choppy waters.

Little time is wasted getting to the crux of the matter, as Anja’s diagnosis comes within the first ten minutes of the film yet it is Tomas who breaks down first upon hearing the news. The symptoms alerting Anja were a lack of clear reading vision which even glasses couldn’t correct along with headaches and nausea. The timing is unfortunate as doctors are off on their Christmas break, with the earliest operation available on January 2nd.

This allows Sødahl to break the film down into sections based on the passing days from Christmas Eve to the day of the op, like a countdown to Anja’s fate if one chooses to view it as such. Given the state the NHS is here in the UK thanks to the Tories, it might seem quite implausible that so much immediate help is on hand for Anja and during the festive season so let’s tip our hats to the Norwegian heath service for that.

One interesting facet about this film is that all the medical staff Anja and Tomas talk to are played by real doctors; there is a curious coincidence as the doctor who agreed to play the specialist who broke the news to Anja was in fact the same one who told Sødahl of her diagnosis in real life in 2011! So, not only are Norwegian medical staff efficient they can act too!

Back to the story, and the first hour plays out like a taut game of nerves and Anja and Tomas struggle with how and when they should tell the kids and Anja’s father (Einar Økland) who also lives with them. They are told many times to wait until they know the full severity of the condition but they also need advice on the best approach considering the delicacy of the younger children.

Coupled with her fluctuating health, mentally and physically, Anja is caught between her grace under pressure façade around the family and her internal stare down with her own mortality. It might seem like a cheesy cliché but Tomas is there for Anja every step of the way, and whilst he never cracks, the pan and empathy he feels is etched on his face at all times, whether he makes an innocent error or just needs to be there for Anja.

I am loathed to use the word “contrived” in this context, but post Christmas sees the family trying to organise a race against time wedding, a staple plot beat from many a weepy film or TV soap. Thankfully, Sødahl keeps firm control over this so nothing about it is mawkish or needlessly lachrymose, maintaining a sense of dignity and normalcy in lieu of the surrounding circumstances.

Whilst the script is both informative and acute in the medical details and reflection of the emotional trauma created from this situation, Andrea Braein Hovig and Stellan Skarsgård allow Sødahl to strip them of any artifice to bring out natural and tender performances as Anja and Tomas. There are many occasions when Anja is frighteningly blunt and often unreasonable as fear and doubt sets in, yet Hovig capably restrains her character from becoming a monster.  

Maybe an ironic title, Hope doesn’t explicitly offer any as such, but doesn’t discount the possibility either, ending on an ambiguous but perfectly touching note. What it does do is educate us about the mechanics of the diagnosis procedure and sharing the emotional battle in facing what could be their final countdown, with honesty and profundity.   

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