"This is my story as I remember it..."
So begins Maria Sødahl's sensitive, assiduous film Hope. Andrea Bræin Hovig, in a strong, detailed performance, plays Anja, a dance and theatre director who is diagnosed with terminal cancer. Anja has been in a long-term relationship with Tomas (Stellan Skarsgård), with different sets of biological children. The grim diagnosis, given around the wintry, end-of-the-year holidays, and the brief amount of days Anja is told she has left, tests and reshapes the relationships she has between Tomas, her children, and her friends (her closest in the picture is Vera, played by Gjertrud L. Jynge, who gives a lovely turn in a small role).
Anja and her family live in a tasteful home of high gloss white painted walls with moulding, hardwood floors, antique rugs, abstract paintings and flickering candles (the thoughtful production design is by Jørgen Stangebye Larsen with set decoration by Kaja Raastad). It's a cozy, appealing place to be, and the perfect reflection of Anja's smart, artsy, and unsentimental personality. But Anja's anxiety, sadness, fear, and deteriorating health, including the loss of being able to read, is visibly consuming. Her medicines leave her ravenous--bread and sheets of shaved cheese--the food curbing her nausea; ravenous also in an emotional sense: desperation in the face of finality. As the film counts down the days, Anja declares at one point: "Before... My memories were never in the right order... But now, when I see the end, I see everything laid out in chronological order..." Statements like these feel real and close, perhaps borne from Writer / Director Sødahl's own personal experience with cancer.
The picture could be a sister film to Richard Glatzer and Wash Westmoreland's Still Alice. Both films are somewhat simplistic, straightforward portraits of illness. What complicates both, however, are the modulations within the relationships. Here, Anja and Tomas, is the compelling core. An emotionally-wrought sex scene between the two is wrenchingly executed by the actors. And Hovig continuously conveys her wreck of nerves, including a scene before relaying her diagnosis to her children. Overall, the ensemble plays the flawed naturalism of familial tension and affection well. The film is aided by the careful photography (by Manuel Alberto Claro), with some hand-held shots conveying tension and unease. The lack of a music score, makes the movie a bit sluggish but also gives it an appropriately disquieting feel. While the film runs a bit long and never quite hits the emotional punches and heights it seems to be aiming for, the distinctive performances and atmosphere help carry it along. **1/2