By Michael Sicinski
This third feature film by Maria Sødahl is less a comeback than a new beginning. As the opening title card announces, Hope is based on a true story, although the director refrains from telling the viewer that the story is in fact her own. This knowledge certainly isn’t necessary, but it only heightens one’s appreciation for Sødahl’s rigour and restraint. After all, this is a film about a woman discovering that she is afflicted with an incurable brain tumour, the sort of topic from which conventional cinema wrings tear-jerking melodrama and/or life-affirming schmaltz. But Hope is clear-eyed, frank, and at times pitiless. In an alternate dimension, one that valued truth and clarity in popular art, this film might be considered an Oscar contender.
Much of this is on account of a bracing, finely tuned performance by Andrea Bræin Hovig as Anja, the choreographer whose in-remission lung cancer has now re-emerged as brain malignancy, just as she is experiencing a major career peak. For years she has had to balance her work with the demands of family—three children and three stepchildren—while her husband Tomas (Stellan Skarsgård), a theatre director, has made his career top priority. Now, as Anja faces down mortality, she is forced to reckon with the choices she has made, as well as the fact that Tomas will be her primary caregiver when a part of her wants him out of her life completely.
Sødahl organizes the film within a truncated timeline that is somewhat artificial: the days leading up to Christmas through just past the New Year. But this collapsed schedule highlights the accelerated temporal experience of Anja’s condition, as well as producing bureaucratic obstacles. (Anja must wait until after the holidays to receive surgery, despite the urgency of her case.) But above all, Hope captures “sick time,” that inexplicable twilight between forced normality and bewilderment that rearranges the lives of all in the orbit of terminal illness. Sødahl presents this expanding and contracting phenomenon in the most matter-of-fact way possible, displaying depression and mania, tenderness and recrimination, and in the end, as the anesthesia takes Anja under at last, absolute uncertainty.