By Leah Greenblatt
April 16, 2021 at 06:58 PM EDT
Credit: Manuel Claro

Most of the attention paid to Scandinavian cinema this past year has fallen on the tipsy Danish dramedy Another Round, now nominated for two Academy Awards including Best International Feature Film — an unexpected but not entirely unsurprising outcome for a raucous, sozzled cherry bomb of a movie that is essentially a sort of midlife Rumspringa for its four male protagonists.

Norway's own Oscars submission, Hope (in limited release today) made the shortlist in that category but faltered at the final cut, perhaps in part because it hews so much closer to the type of film we expect from that part of the world: quiet, cool-toned, Nordicly restrained. But Maria Sødahl's unshowy drama is a minor-key beauty nonetheless; a sneakily profound portrait of marriage and mortality whose emotional heft is unpeeled in delicate but devastating layers.

Occupied with the daily grind of kids — they share six between them — and careers, Anja (Andrea Bræin Hovig) and Tomas (recent Chernobyl Emmy winner Stellan Skarsgard) have entered a stage of not entirely benign neglect in their relationship. When Anja, a choreographer, returns home from a work trip, the house is a modest wreck, and the career-oriented Tomas blithely unconcerned; why should he work harder at parenting than he has to, when the children are (nearly, not really) old enough to look after themselves?

Even Anja's persistent headaches he dismisses as the product of poor sleep and stress, until a kindly doctor delivers far more serious news: her cancer has returned and it's terminal, though there may be a chance for treatment. On the brink of the Christmas holidays, the couple are suddenly forced to confront a drastically altered future — and the slow-growth chasms that have crept between them.

Director Maria Sødahl (Limbo) shoots it all with intimate, unfiltered naturalism: the cozy candlelit glow of a family gathered festively around the tree; the harsher halogen glare of hospitals and pharmacies. She also shines that unforgiving light on her protagonists, pain and shock and blame etched in every glance and whispered word as they struggle to cope with the uncopable.

But Hope has its title for a reason, too: As the film goes on, its sentiments don't exactly soften — Sødahl's script is unsparing in its portrayal of what it takes to face life-altering circumstances with a partner you no longer entirely trust or understand — but the full, flawed humanity of Hovid and Skarsgard's characters is imbued in nearly every scene, even their smallest interactions bearing the full weight of a long romantic history.

That kind of grown-adult storytelling, particularly in a foreign language, will probably be forever niche, but the movie may still get its wider audience after all; earlier this year, it was announced that Nicole Kidman had bought the rights and plans to star in limited-series remake of her own for Amazon Studios. If she does right by the story, she'll be lucky to make something half as lovely and resonant as what's already here. Grade: A–

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