Released on Netflix on October 10, 22 July is the second film this year to tackle the tragic events that took place in Oslo and on the island of Utøya in 2011. Here’s our first look review of a film bound to spark conversation and controversy…
I’ve previously harped on ad nauseam about the predictable-if-fascinating cinematic trend that sees rival studios getting the irrepressible itch to release similar films in the same year. It’s usually biopics, clobbering popular culture on the head by choosing to celebrate the life of an icon. The twin film phenomenon repeats like clockwork, so much so that coincidence can’t quite explain it, and industrial espionage might seem a bit too conspiracy-theory leaning. 2018 was until recently the year of AA Milne, with the twin releases of Goodbye Christopher Robin and Christopher Robin. However, and somewhat more troubling, this year also sees big and small screens getting the fictionalised treatment of the 2011 Norway attacks, which saw a right-wing extremist claim 77 lives in two consecutive acts of terrorism.
Paul Greengrass’ 22 July comes after Norwegian director Erik Poppe’s U-July 22 (out September 22), which was the first fiction film to depict the tragic events that occurred on the Norwegian island of Utøya. It was an unflinching, single-take and real-time descent into hell, and one of the most memorable films in this year’s Berlinale Competition strand. And because of this second film’s timing, it’s hard not to discuss 22 July without comparing it to the former.
Granted, knives were out for Greengrass’ project before it even landed. A great many people had already expressed their dislike for any kind of dramatisation. Even Poppe’s film, which was given the green light by survivors and families of the victims, was met with some understandable trepidation, despite the fact survivors of the attack served as direct consultants on U-July 22 and were present during the shoot, describing the process and film as part of their healing process during this year’s Berlinale. But the English filmmaker is no stranger to dramatising real-life tragedy, and therefore seemed like an obvious candidate to helm the project. Whether it’s Bloody Sunday, United 93 or Captain Phillips, he has shown a talent for tackling horrific events, employing his trademark vérité style to great effect, both stylistically and in terms of ethical integrity. With these films in mind, what a crushing disappointment it is to report that 22 July is a docufiction that falls short of expectations.
Written and directed by Greengrass and based on the book En av oss (One of Us) by Åsne Seierstad, the film deals with both the attack and its aftermath, and starts on what some could consider something of a problematic note. Our entry point into the story is Anders Behring Breivik, the perpetrator of the attacks. We see him, played by Anders Danielsen Lie, preparing the explosives, checking his assault rifle and leaving a manifesto on his laptop. Whereas Breivik is a terrifyingly anonymous, blink-and-you’ll-miss-him silhouette in U-July 22, Greengrass makes him one of his film’s main protagonists. Admittedly, the film justifies this to a certain degree in the second half, which deals with the court case, but it’s a decision which could lead many to feel this is giving the terrorist’s hateful ideas an uncomfortable amount of screen time.
The film does have some redeeming elements, especially when dealing with the aftermath of the attack. It is forensically researched, as you’d expect from Greengrass, and much to his credit, the filmmaker does justly dwell on the open wound that is the attack on the nation and how the judicial system fought back in its own way by dwarfing Breivik’s desire to be seen as a crusader and a martyr. It’s also an appropriately tough watch, with a restrained use of graphic violence when needed. As for the performances, Jonas Strand Gravil, who plays Viljar Hanssen, the young victim who finds himself in a critical condition after the island attack, brings much heart to a challenging role. However, it has to be noted that the laudable casting of Norwegian actors is somewhat undercut by the decision to have them speak in English. The cast do admirably well but the fact it is not their mother tongue occasionally makes some dialogue feel stilted and some emotional beats bizarrely stagey.
Ultimately though, nothing detracts from the scattershot approach to storytelling. Whereas Poppe chose one path and stuck to it, shrewdly electing to exclusively focus on the victims, Greengrass disappointingly fumbles his three-tiered approach to the tragedy. His script follows not only one survivor’s journey towards healing (in a slightly obvious attempt to mirror the country’s own healing process), but also Breivik and his assigned lawyer Geir Lippestad (Jon Øigarden), who finds himself reluctant at times considering the nature of the crime, as well as faced with the reactions of those who can’t comprehend why Breivik is allowed legal representation. There are tantalising flashes within these segments, exploring the reaction of the Norwegian legal system when faced with a never-before-seen act of terror or some of the children’s survival guilt and PTSD, but none of them are ever dwelt upon long enough to provide any real depth or insight. Considering the magnitude of the event, in all senses of the term, picking one perspective and convincingly addressing its complex layers would have been significantly more judicious than picking three and sticking to broad, surface-level reflections.
Of course, the cinematic treatment of the Oslo and Utøya attacks, like any treatment of a real-life tragedy, requires a sensitive hand in order to sidestep any accusations of tasteless sensationalising or crude exploitation. Thankfully, there isn’t anything on screen here that could lead anyone to level serious accusations of that nature. There is a case to be made about a perceived opportunism regarding timing, and interestingly, Greengrass has prior form, as United 93 was itself also twinned with Oliver Stone’s World Trade Center in 2006… That said, there is no perfect blueprint for the best ways to treat human suffering and tragedies of this nature on the big screen. All one can do is assure tragedies like this one are dealt with respectfully and with humanity. Both succeed on this level, and while Netflix will assure 22 July gets a wide audience, if you choose to go see one of this year’s strange twin releases, make sure to seek out Erik Poppe’s superior, more impactful and far more ambitious film, both cinematically and for its blisteringly empathetic perspective.
22 July | Directed by Paul Greengrass (USA, Norway, Iceland 2018) with Thorbjørn Harr. Starts October 10 on Neflix.