Norwegian cinema is undoubtedly enjoying its ‘golden era’, making its mark on the international stage and garnering a reputation for itself as one of the main players of world cinema. Of the 900 films the country has produced, a third of these were made in the last 15 years. Films such as Headhunters (2011) and Troll Hunter (2011) have all contributed towards the critical praise and box office figures the films have received outside their native land, and as the two most successful of these have been released in the past two years there is no reason to think that this trend is about to dwindle.
Uno (2004), the first and only writing/directing credit of actor Aksel Hennie, while not representative of the same commercially orientated Norwegian genre cinema we have been exposed to in this country, is nonetheless an important part of this current surge in productivity and indeed artistry. Hennie himself has starred in a number of successful films and theatre productions, garnering a number of accolades in the process, and as such forms an integral part of the current Norwegian industry. Uno won him the Amanda award – the Norwegian Oscars, in which the film was also nominated for ‘Best Film’ and ‘Best Actor’ – for ‘Best Direction’, cementing the film as an important cultural product and expressing the importance of this sort of dynamic, youth-led independent cinema in the country’s film culture.
The film follows David (Hennie), a young recreational body builder, working in an urban based gym, during a time of particular turbulence; his father is immobilised with cancer, his boss Jarle’s son’s (Lars) irresponsible involvement with a local dealer called Khuram is left to him to deal with, his best friend Morten is thinking dangerously with his penis and his devotion to his mother and brother Kjetil (who happens to have Down Syndrome) is secondary to his friends and job. When a discovery is made at a particularly bad time, David has to make a decision that will have dire consequences whichever path he takes.
Due to the fact that I am not a big fan of overly detailed synopses (why detract from one of cinema’s intrinsic pleasures in the name of verbosity, unnecessary clarity or – distributors take note – for an easier sell when it is simply not necessary) this sounds like a relatively simple affair, however Hennie actually weaves a reasonably complex web of narrative elements. Again I won’t go into detail of exactly what these are. Suffice to say that they are all well balanced, relevant and come together magnificently in the end.
The fact that the film is based on the director’s life (Hennie was the first person ever in Norway to be convicted for a graffiti-based offence, an offence for which he was outcast from his community for ‘squealing’) has undoubtedly informed this rather deft balancing act, a factor also apparent in how knowingly he handles some of his obviously personal material. In making the transition from graffiti writing to bodybuilding, he and Nicolai Cleve Broch (Morten), underwent an intensive six month training programme in order to look and act the part of small-time ‘Iron Pumpers’, a transformation that is never anything less than convincing. Similarly Hennie’s work at the other side of the camera is assured, knowing and entirely appropriate to his scenario; the dialogue flows freely and naturally, the motivations of the characters are never under question and his choice of locations are both apt and utilised to their full potential.
One can’t help but feel that maybe at times he is massaging his own ego a little, and perhaps portraying himself as a victim of circumstance, at times even a borderline martyr figure, pushing the boundaries of plausibility in regards to his own character (and therefore his real-life counterpart). Some of the other characters are perhaps a little one-dimensional, operating on a level that feels slightly utilitarian in narrative terms. That said, within the framework of the film itself the spell of verisimilitude is never broken so this is easily excused. In fact it could be argued that this somewhat one-dimensional, simplistic characterisation is integral to the extended ‘Uno’ metaphor (‘Uno’, for those of you unacquainted with it, is a card game in which players have to rid themselves of their hand of numbered and coloured cards – all the while struggling against a number of pitfalls that may cause them to have to pick up cards – until they get to their last card at which point they have to shout aloud the word ‘Uno’ to be able to put down their last card and thus win the game, lest they forget to shout it and have to pick up the deck and so continue in their ultimate quest to victory! Phew…) which feeds into almost every stylistic, thematic and semantic level of the film’s make-up. The different factions (Borgen, Lars and Jarle, Khuram and ‘the pakis’ and David’s mum and kid brother Kjetil) that the protagonist faces operate as players in a game, making clear cut ‘moves’ that dictate how the protagonist and indeed the other ‘players’ react. Yet the level of realism – integral to ‘gritty’ drama such as this – is such that the situation depicted loses none of its impetus through the use of such a stylistic device.
Similarly the ‘Uno’ cards that are the numbers and symbols that constitute the name of each of the films chapters, introduced by intertitles displaying images of the given card (the casually crooked angle and ‘sprayed on’ sheen of the graphics bearing witness to Hennie’s roots as a street artist), have a particular bearing on the scenes that follow and/or vice versa. The use of colour filters (most notably yellow or green) endow each section with a particular expressive quality, which, when coupled with the moderately intense stylisation and dreamy pacing interspersed with moments of frantic action and violence, evokes filmmakers such as Darren Aronofsky or, to a lesser extent, Gaspar Noe.
As a final point, the strength of this metaphor undoubtedly presents itself towards the film’s climax. At the fear of spoiling the ending for those of you who haven’t seen it I won’t say anymore than the arc and metaphor reach their zenith in pitch perfect harmony.
Despite a few minor faults with the film, this is an exceptionally strong piece of cinema (especially considering Hennie’s status as debutante writer/director) indicative of a hopefully bright(er) future for an industry that is building it’s strength and only just beginning to flex its muscles. Although it is a film that deserves an audience outside its native country, there is little wrong with local films playing primarily to local audiences, particularly if that is where their resonance lies. Besides, where would we be at Minicine if some of these films didn’t pass through the net of the wider cinematic consciousness? Playing The King’s Speech probably…
– Adam Ryan, film programmer