Alex Heeney reviews Maria Søhndal’s TIFF19 film, Hope, one of the best acquisition titles screening at TIFF19, which stars Andrea Bræin Hovig and Stellen Skarsgård.
Early in Hope, Anja (Andrea Bræin Hovig) and her husband, Tomas (Stellen Skarsgård), sit side-by-side in a two-shot, in a doctor’s office, as they receive news that Anja’s lung cancer has spread to her brain, and is likely no longer treatable. They react completely independently, as if they’re not even in the same room: Tomas cries quietly to himself while Anja appears in shock, remaining calm if angry, trying to sort out the logistics. It’s the first sign that their marriage is on rocky ground as this wrench in the works unleashes years of Anja’s pent-up anger. Anja’s reaction is also specifically female, aware that she will be expected to carry much of the emotional burden of her diagnosis in their relationship; she doesn’t cry because she can’t afford to. By letting us watch these divergent reactions side-by-side in real time, director Maria Søhdal makes us aware of how not on the same page these two are.
Unfolding over the week between Christmas and New Year’s Day, between Anja’s diagnosis and the surgery to potentially remove her tumour, the film is about how Anja, Tomas, and their six children react to the devastating news — and desperately try to keep hope alive. Anja and Tomas move between an all-time low as a couple, to an all-time high, though whether that happiness is sustainable is ambiguous. Throughout, Søhdal tenderly depicts a marriage that is indeed a strong partnership, with years of built-up intimacies, and yet also how that relationship can be stifling, in part because of gendered expectations. Hovig and Skarsgaård give complex performances as two largely kind, professionally ambitious people in a difficult situation. You really believe they’ve built a family together, with all the joys and sacrifices that entails. But you’re also left wondering if the hope they have for the future of both their marriage and Anja’s life is false, and whether that even matters.
Hope is still seeking distribution in the US, UK, and Canada.
Hope screens 9/9 at 10:0 p.m. (Scotiabank) and 9/14 at 2:30 p.m. (Scotiabank). Tickets here.