Monoglot Movie Club: Pining For The Fjords

Part of an occasional series in which Spank The Monkey travels to foreign countries, watches films in unfamiliar languages, and then complains about not understanding them

Like any regular business traveller, I have a checklist that I work through whenever I enter a new hotel. Does the room have tea and coffee making facilities? Is there enough soap in the shower? Are the tissues within arm’s reach of the bed? Once I’ve confirmed all those, it’s time to turn on the TV to get a quick overview of the local culture, in what I’ve only just realised is a smaller-scale and cheaper version of what I regularly do here in Monoglot Movie Club.

On my first night in Oslo, I was already slightly on edge after I discovered that my hotel failed on all three points on the checklist. And then I started watching the TV. Of the 13 channels available in my room, all of them bar one were showing English language programmes with subtitles. By the time I’d found out that the most interesting thing on telly that week was a subtitled episode of Monty Python’s Flying Circus, I had to wonder: if there’s so little Norwegian language material on television, what must Norway’s cinemas be like?

All of the above is a roundabout way of explaining that this analysis of current Norwegian cinema trends is based on a single trip to the movies. In what’s becoming a motif of these pieces, a new local film was released on the final day of my visit, and I had to cram it into the final few hours before my plane left for Heathrow. Still, I could have picked worse places to go: the Colosseum  is an impressive-looking multiplex whose premier screen is apparently the largest THX auditorium in the world. Sadly, I was in screen 2, but you can’t have everything.

Norway isn’t as bereft of local cinema as some of the countries I’ve visited in this series, but their releases tend to be spread out over the year. So the supporting programme included trailers for a couple of Norwegian films due out in the next few weeks. I’d seen the poster for Til Ungdommen  on metro station platforms, with its images of teenagers and its cutesy heart logo, and assumed it was some sort of Oslo equivalent of Hollyoaks. The trailer soon put me right on that score.

Let’s put this into context. I saw the trailer for Til Ungdommen in an Oslo cinema, on the same day that Anders Behring Breivik was convicted – in a courtroom just a few kilometres down the road – for the atrocities that form the turning point of the film. Even without the benefit of language, you could tell that the audience sitting with me wasn’t quite sure what to think. There’s been worldwide praise for the calm way that Norway has brought Breivik to justice, but the massacre was an event that’s still very much an open wound on the country’s psyche. Despite the obvious good intentions of Kari Anne Moe’s documentary, focusing as it does on young people trying to rebuild their lives afterwards, it seems a little too soon – or at least, it seemed that way on the day of the verdict. Still, I’ll be curious to follow its progress in the coming weeks.

Those good intentions I mentioned earlier are genuine, without a doubt. Norway’s stereotypical reputation as a nation of Guardian readers stretched all the way through the trailers and into the supporting programme’s adverts. There’s a curious balance of social justice and whimsy at the heart of the two most memorable ads I saw. We Can Do More attempts to change attitudes to recycling though the use of ironic power ballads, while NetCom Tirsdag takes an unexpected approach in its promotion of the local equivalent of Orange Wednesdays. Still, I should point out that not all Norwegian cinema is as touchy-feely, with the next couple of weeks seeing the release of romcom Mer Eller Mindre Mann and cheesy telly spinoff Tina & Bettina: The Movie.

And that’s before we get to the main film I saw that day, a new retelling of the true-life story of the Kon-Tiki.  We all know roughly what it’s about, something that’s always useful when you’re trying to watch a film in a language you don’t understand. In 1947, the Norwegian explorer Thor Heyerdahl (Pål Sverre Valheim Hagen) finds the scientific establishment unwilling to accept his theory that 1500 years earlier, South Americans travelled to Polynesia by sea and settled there. There’s only one way he can prove it: build a balsa wood raft of the type used back then, and sail in it from Peru to Polynesia without killing himself. Will he succeed? Rhetorical question, obviously.

This isn’t the first time Heyerdahl’s voyage has been depicted on film: his own documentary won an Academy Award in 1951. One of the problems of such a well-known story is that it’s hard to keep up the dramatic tension, as everyone knows the ending. Any attempts to add suspense feel cheap and forced: the disapproval of Heyerdahl’s wife, the way bits of the Kon-Tiki raft keep damply breaking off in people’s hands, and the regular shark attacks. The latter actually do look great, though – the FX work is top notch throughout, apart from some cartoony exteriors in the early New York sections. The key purpose of those scenes appears to be to have a couple of lines of blatant exposition spoken in English, which can then be put into the trailer to fool international audiences.

It’s hard to get too emotionally involved with the characters: after all, when you’re drifting in a boat for over 100 days, the default setting is torpor, something this film bravely refuses to shy away from. But those characters are carefully drawn and acted, so even after three months of beard growth the six men on the Kon-Tiki all have very distinctive personalities. (Compare and contrast with the interchangeable matelots in Nova Zembla, the Dutch film I saw earlier this year.)  For me, the most emotional moment came in the final where-are-they-now montage, which inevitably reveals that all of the protagonists are now dead (though one of them held on till 2009). I was amused by the little girl in the audience who was more audibly rooting for a small crab that had snuck onto the boat.

Here’s something I found interesting, though – the print I saw was subtitled all the way through. Yes, the English language sequences had Norwegian subtitles, but so did the Norwegian scenes. A screening for the hard of hearing? Use of an obscure dialect? Or have I got my Scandinavian languages massively confused? The answer could be any of those. But I have to say, having Norwegian subs on screen throughout gave me lots of handy visual cues to bits of the dialogue I might have otherwise missed. For example, there’s an amusing mix-up between shark repellent and tomato soup that I wouldn’t have understood without them. (The film has a surprising number of good jokes in both languages, including an exchange with the American who supplies the shark repellent. “Does it work?” asks Heyerdahl. The American replies “actually, we were hoping you could tell us…”)

Kon-Tiki is more of an arthouse take on one of the great voyages, rather than a multiplex-friendly thrill-ride. (Not counting Norwegian multiplexes, of course.) It’s good on the claustrophobia of being cooped up in a small place with five other guys and nobody else within several hundred miles, and great on pure visual spectacle. Directors Joachim Rønning and Espen Sandberg have international form (their previous hit was the war epic Max Manus), so it’s quite possible that Kon-Tiki could appear on UK screens in the future. Tina & Bettina: The Movie? Less likely, I think. Though I suspect the country that brought you Keith Lemon: The Film is in no position to point fingers about that sort of thing.

Spank The Monkey is available on the internet in longshort and non-verbal formats.

About Spank The Monkey

Spank The Monkey has been talking nonsense about popular culture on the internet since 1998. He can be found doing that in long form on his blog, and in short form on Twitter. He is a regular contributor to Mostly Film, where his specialist subjects are Asian cinema, cult movies and TV, and watching foreign films without the benefit of subtitles. He lives in London with somebody else.

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