London Film Festival 2018: First Look Review U – July 22

“You’ll never understand, just listen to me” says Kaja (Andrea Berntzen), looking into the camera, at the beginning of this real time telling of the story of the Utøya massacre perpetrated by Anders Behring Breivik. Kaja isn’t talking to us but to her mother, but clearly the target of this dialogue is the audience.

We arrive on the island as the teens at its political summer camp have just heard about the explosion at the Government buildings in Oslo that acted as Breivik’s cover for his attack on Utøya. They are talking about the explosion of course, but also about other things – for instance Magnus (Alexsander Holmen) is trying hit on Kaja. That all changes when the first gunshots are heard in the distance and panic quickly sets in, sending the kids scattering, running from a threat they don’t yet know. For the next 72 minutes we stay at Kaja’s shoulder as she tries to survive and to find her younger sister Emilie (Elli Rhiannon Müller Osbourne).

Kaja’s right in the beginning: we’ll never understand, but Erik Poppe’s mix of fact and fiction (the characters and specifics of the story are fictional, but based on interviews with survivors and drawn from a variety of their real experience) is clearly intended to plunge us into the nightmare of Utøya so we can come as close as possible to seeing and understanding what it was like to be there that day. Much of what is most interesting in Poppe’s direction is what he chooses not to show. Breivik is almost an absent figure, glimpsed only twice, a shape more than a person. The other thing we don’t see is people being shot. Bodies are visible, largely as Kaja and whoever she’s with in the moment run past them, as are the after effects of gunshot wounds, but while we see people running from the sound of gunfire, we never see them fall under it. In this way, for me, Poppe evades the charge that he’s making a spectacle of these deaths. None of the film’s violence is shown unless we have to live in it for a long moment.

It’s the noise that stays with you. From the time the first gunshot rings out (“firecrackers?” says one kid) to the moment the credits roll, we’re never sure where the crack of the next bullet will come from. There is a constant sense of dread and fantastic sound design ensures that we’re never able to anticipate the next shot. The quiet is almost more terrifying, as an audience we’re even more aware than the characters that the momentary peace will be shattered again by a sound that almost certainly means another of their friends is dead or injured. We can never be sure of the closeness of the next shot either, and while we suspect it’s a safe assumption Kaja won’t die, because we’ve been stuck to her shoulder, that’s not to say we are ever allowed to feel there’s no danger that Poppe won’t simply attach the camera to another character.

Andrea Berntzen makes an exceptional debut as Kaja. Neither she nor any of the other young actors strike a false note. In the early scenes we buy them as serious kids from the way they talk about Oslo, but also just as typical teens, trying to have a fun time with their friends. As the situation evolves we watch Berntzen go through the wringer as Kaja has to protect herself, try to find her sister and in the course of events try to help others as well. In one especially wrenching sequence Kaja lies next to a girl who has been shot, trying to be there for and comfort this person whose name she doesn’t even know.

There is some contrivance in the idea of basing the entire narrative around Kaja, sometimes the idea that everything in the story would happen to a single individual strains credulity, but that is repaid by the emotional investment we develop in her as a character. Only one brief scene breaks the verisimilitude; one choice that it’s tough to imagine the character we’ve now spent over an hour with making in that moment, but it’s a small moment in an otherwise entirely consistent narrative.

U – July 22 is, appropriately, difficult and harrowing viewing, but it’s a great display of directorial technique not to dazzle us with that technique but to plant us feet first in a situation, to make us feel like we have lain in the dirt with these people and felt some tiny measure of what they felt.

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