Paul Greengrass has rarely shied from disturbing real-life topics, with films such as Bloody Sunday, United 93 and Captain Phillips under his belt. He comes to Venice in competition with 22 July, his film about the terrible events in Oslo and on the island of Utøya in 2011. His focus here is on the island and the summer camp, which Norwegian teens have been attending for decades.
The film opens with our first glimpse of the lone masked killer Anders Behring Breivik (Anders Danielsen Lie) mixing his lethal explosive potions. This is juxtaposed with a scene of all the kids arriving on the island and there is a real feel of camaraderie and youthful joy. Yet over these images we have ominous music announcing that this is soon to change. Our focus is on Viljar (Jonas Strand Gravli), who arrives with his younger brother and is clearly much loved by his friends and the camp organisers. While the campers joke, play football and flirt (as well as participate in more serious socially-focused activities), we watch Breivik finishing off his alt-right missive on his computer and sneaking in and out of the home he shares with his mother.
Greengrass covers the mass shooting, which makes for hard viewing, and we watch as teenagers are mown down as they try to run for their lives on this idyllic-looking island. This brings up the inevitable comparison with another film that dealt with the terrorist attack: Erik Poppe’s Utøya July 22, a shocking single-take sequence that covered the atrocity, in which the camera follows a character as she and her companions try to escape the killer. That film lasted 72 minutes, which is how long Breivik’s attack lasted, and it is the leaner and more compelling of the two films.
July 22 follows a fairly traditional narrative arc, going from the killings to the victims’ recuperation (and the perpetrator’s incarceration) to the trial. There are plenty of scenes that look familiar: the victim being revived in ER, the killer mocking his captors, the government emergency meetings. This could really have been a TV movie for Greengrass never tries to do anything cinematically adventurous, which is both disappointing and surprising considering his filmography.
Another issue is its language. Greengrass has a Norwegian cast, so why not have them speak their native language? It is strange to listen to the accented actors dealing – and on occasion struggling – with a foreign language en masse. I’m guessing this is to make the film more accessible to a wider audience, but it’s a jarring choice.
However, what does come across to non-Norwegian audiences is that nation’s incredible civility, even in the face of one of its worst atrocities. There is no histrionics or melodrama. The public defence lawyer (a fine performance by Jon Øygarden) goes about his galling business and there is never any discussion of him quitting, even when receiving death threats. We see the Prime Minister apologise to the victims’ families and we see Breivik getting a fair trial and apparently no ill treatment at the hands of his captors. The film is very much a paean to that civility and desire for democracy, as well as a testament to the youths who lost their lives. Greengrass ends the film with Viljar’s brave testimony followed by Breivik heading for solitary confinement, showing that – in this case, at least – love has conquered hate.