Stripped down account of a nation’s nightmare.
From the Bourne series to Captain Philips, from Green Zone to United 93, Paul Greengrass is a down-to-earth, authentic filmmaker, injecting a keen sense of reality into his storytelling. He has a mixture of fiction and non-fiction (often based on tragedies) in his filmography. 22 July is the latest addition to the latter genre of his work, a startling and honest account of a city decimated by an act of pure evil, and the efforts made to repair themselves amidst unforeseeable grief.
On July 22, 2011, Oslo was hit by two terror attacks. The first came in the late afternoon, when a car bomb was detonated outside the building which housed Norway’s Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg (played by Ola G. Furuseth). He was not harmed, but eight people and 209 were injured. Two hours later, the summer island of Utøya, on which hundreds of children were in attendance at a camp organised by the youth division of the ruling Norwegian Labour Party, was attacked by a lone shooter. 69 people were killed, mostly teenagers, with a further 110 injured.
The act was stated as being the deadliest in Norway since World War II. Anders Behring Breivik (played by Anders Danielsen Lie) was behind the attacks, a far-right extremist who wants to cleanse Norway and Europe of Islam, and help the country regain its nationality. He even claimed in his trial he should be acquitted of all charges because he was acting out of defence for his country. The event, naturally, shook the world, sending shockwaves through every political movement, with some far-righters even saying that a violent act such as this doesn’t represent their stance.
The film isn’t primarily an account of the shootings themselves; Greengrass’ film is more focused on the horrific aftermath and the subsequent trial that took place. But before we get to any form of salvation, we have to witness the terror first. Immediately opening with quaint, baron cinematography, cold to the eyes (framed by DP Pål Ulvik Rokseth) the dread looms harshly over the picture. The first 15 minutes or so contrast the idyllic Utøya island and the teens enjoying their time there, with preparatory actions of Breivik before launching his assault. The constant cutting to each party’s whereabouts is a little tiresome, and the score (composed by Sune Martin) is overbearing, adding a unneeded theatrical slant as a precursor to the very thing we all know is coming.
We’re very quickly shown the huge explosion in Oslo, and its over-in-a-flash nature is very appropriate. Breivik was in and out in minutes, but the seismic blast leaves the city in a state of chaos. The ample use of effects and footage in this scene make it feel so real. From here the time bomb is almost unbearable to watch. Greengrass’ style works so well when recounting a tragedy such as this because it’s made to feel as if you’re watching it unfold in real time, and it’s painfully authentic. The attack on the island, in contrast to the bomb, is horrifically drawn out.
It can be easy to separate yourself from scenes of great bloodshed, but here they’re too raw to suspend and transcend belief. “You will die today Marxist, Liberals, members of the elite,” Breivik says as he massacres a hut full of kids. We’re powerless as he strolls around, picking off flocking campers, him being immune to the coarseness of their agonised screams. The director centres his attention on child in particular, Viljar Hannsen (Jonas Strand Gravli), which helps keep the terror organised and and more refined cinematically.
Breivik was eventually arrested by police, and that’s when the bulk of the film kicks in. Lie’s performance is chilling, collected with remarkable obedience, but utterly malevolent behind the eyes. His dialogue is tough at times, having to believably claim that the children the shooter killed are “traitors… children of the elite, leaders of tomorrow”. He is captivating as the despicable centre of the event. But Greengrass smartly evokes the strongest performance from Gravli as Viljar. He was nearly killed, left with two fingers on his left hand, blind in one eye, and forced to relearn how to use his body. But his need to share the story and fight Breivik where it counts most is portrayed, mostly, stunningly by Gravli in a remarkably physical turn. The plight of his will to recover against Breivik’s manipulation of democracy helps really illustrate the thematic heft of the event today.
There are some theatrical contrivances that lessen the hardened edge of the film, and are often quite unwelcome as they pad it out to a slightly overlong runtime. Some on-the-nose dialogue aimed towards Breivik doesn’t feel as suitably within the heroic spirit Greengrass mostly focuses on. He also uses ill-advised mental flashbacks for Viljar which feel distractingly out of place. But the court battle is deftly played out, with some heartbreaking moments that’ll tug on the heartstrings of parents everywhere. A highlight is Jon Øigarden as Breivik’s lawyer Geir Lippestad, who was forced as part of his duty to represent him. The writing and the performance is a portrait of professionalism as a necessity, not a desire.
22 July is a strong cinematic account of an event so unbearable to watch, yet so spine-chillingly believable. Powerful viewing.
Cameron Frew – @FrewFilm