Optimistic New Yorker Frances’ journey of self-discovery begins, like so many others, with a single step. Or more of a stomp, really, a proper rib-crushing stomp straight to her soul delivered by a trio of art critics before an audience of her peers. Then, before a summer of love in The Hamptons can soothe her scarred psyche, her boyfriend dumps her too. Leaving her to ride the Jitney home alone, hair still soaked with the water from his decadent pool.
Neither her single bunk in the cramped apartment her family shares nor the fragment of studio space her dad allots her leave Frances (Jenny Slate) room to grieve. Her sister just got engaged, her parents’ marriage is falling apart and her dreams are crumbling. So she heads to Norway to work as an artist’s mentee, to sleep in a caravan at the edge of a fjord and paint a barn yellow for a taciturn man who finds her bright chatter and passion intolerable.
In Norway, she is renewed. Despite the ominous greeting “Welcome to Hell” daubed across her accommodation, she insists upon being delighted by every new encounter. Goats at the door, 12 hour painting days, a surly mentor, lumpy milk…nothing dampens Frances’ enthusiasm. The milk even leads her to find her Norwegian muse – Fridge Girl (Luise Nes) – a body-confident young woman of few words who reminds her of a renaissance angel.
For its first third (and scattered moments beyond it) The Sunlit Night is as engaging and likeable as Frances herself. From its witty use of art as Frances’ connection to her world – her Mondrian-esque quarters in NYC in particular – to its confident use of silence, The Sunlit Night begins with so much promise; a vulnerable, excruciatingly personal journey with a dynamic, dauntless protagonist. A young woman navigating a new world, alone.
Despite Frances’ admiration for and enthusiasm about his work and reputation, Nils’ (Fridtjov Såheim) career is in decline. The installation at the barn is his final opportunity to redeem his name and the painstaking work cannot be derailed, even if Frances’ disarming manner has begun to chip some of his sharper corners away.
The early promise of the gently evolving friendship and Frances’ exploration of this alien place where the sun never sets is soon derailed by a new arrival and swiftly morphs into Garden State – with Vikings replacing knights – because god forbid we should be forced to sit through an entire film about a twenty-something girl finding herself. What fun would that be?!
Yasha (Alex Sharp) attracts Frances’ attention immediately, his heavy eyes remind her of Caravaggio’s Boy with a Basket of Fruit and his mournful air intrigues her. He feels so familiar, she is convinced they have met before. When she discovers that he is on the extraordinary Lofoten archipelago to give his Rusian father the Viking funeral of his dreams she is enchanted rather than freaked out and here, sadly, events take a turn for the disappointing…
Suddenly this singular, quiet, female adventure – clumsy but charming – won’t shut up. Won’t stop explaining itself. The Sunlit Night would be a far better film if it contained far fewer words. We didn’t need a whacky larping American Viking but we get one in Haldor (Zach Galifianakis). We don’t need his clumsy boundary-crossing and neediness to be telegraphed, we see it. The force drawing directionless girl and grieving boy together didn’t need to be mapped out, we get it. Gillian Anderson is always a joy but honestly, we could have lived without her.
It seems extraordinary that a film which uses art, light and colour with such grace, should draw its characters with these clumsy strokes. Directed by David Wnendt and adapted by Rebecca Dinerstein Knight from her novel, The Sunlit Night is admirable more for the thing it aspires to be than the thing it is. Its palette is beautiful, its landscapes breathtaking and Ennis Rotthoff’s lovely score helps echo the sense of otherworldliness that Jenny Slate’s expressive face conveys.
Worth watching for the aesthetic, for the tempestuous working relationship and endearing attempts to say something about the human heart and for the genuinely moving Mourner’s Kaddish Frances sings at the waterside (when the irritating Zach Galifianakis skit finally ends), The Sunlit Night is available across digital platforms from 16th November.