Norway’s Hopeful for best international film at the Academy Awards
Director/writer Maria Sødahl puts her cancer and love story on screen
Business & Sports Editor
The Norwegian American
A cancer movie with a love story is breaking out.
In a remarkable, unique movie, Hope director/writer Maria Sødahl weaves both into the script, the love story a clever development. For the most part, this is Maria’s story through Anja Richter (Andrea Bræin Hovig). This is no sappy “love is never having to say you’re sorry” Love Story, which Sødahl desperately wanted to avoid.
On Feb. 9, the movie was shortlisted in the International Feature Film category for the Academy Awards, which are April 25. On Jan. 28, it was announced that actress Nicole Kidman has plans to adapt the movie into a television series, with her production company, Blossom Films, collaborating with Amazon Studios to produce it. Kidman will star in the show.
Hovig has garnered Best Actress awards from the Amanda Awards in Haugesund, Norway, and at the Kosmorama Trondheim Internasjonale Filmfestival, and was a nominee at European Film Awards (the first Norwegian speaking actor ever nominated). Co-star Stellan Skarsgård (Tomas) was nominated for Best Actor laurels from Trondheim and the Amanda Awards, and Gjertrud L. Jynge (Anja’s friend Vera) won Best Supporting Actress from Trondheim and was a nominee for the Amanda Awards.
The film won Best Production Design from Trondheim and was nominated for Best Editing, Cinematography, Director, Screenplay there, and it was nominated for Best Direction, Cinematography, Screenplay, Film at the Amanda Awards. Hope was third in the Berlin International Film Festival–Panorama Audience Award, Fiction Film, and was a nominee and official selection at Brussels International Film Festival–Grand Prix du Festival, Palm Springs International Film Festival, Toronto International Film Festival, Skip City International D-Cinema Festival in Japan, and Lübeck Nordic Film Days in Germany.
In separate interviews, Sødahl talked about the making of the film, Hovig about playing the role of Anja.
Sødahl’s 2010 debut feature film, Limbo, received 10 nominations from the Amanda Awards, winning five, and she received the Best Director Award from the Montreal Film Festival.
Hope covers nine days from Dec. 23 to Anja’s surgery on Jan. 2. She and Tomas have lived together for several years with three of his children from a previous marriage and three of hers from a previous marriage. Tomas is 20 years older than Anja. She had spent the prior Christmas in a hospital with lung cancer. For two months, she has been experiencing headaches and dizziness and hasn’t told anyone. She finally goes to the doctor. The metastasis from the lungs had spread to the brain. “At worst, you have three months to live,” she is told.
Some may think that two consecutive cancer diagnoses at Christmas might be a Hollywood-like coincidence, but Sødahl says that is what happened.
“I didn’t think I would be able to do anything anymore and continue my career,” she said via Zoom from Oslo, nine years after the diagnosis. I just could not work. I couldn’t get anything on paper. I had friends and colleagues who said ‘you really have to deal with this story because it’s so extraordinary. Few film directors can tell this specific story so it’s your responsibility to tell that story, Maria.’ I didn’t feel that way. I was hesitating, because I thought it was so difficult to make a movie that rang true, because cancer movies are their own genre. My point of view is they often become very sentimental. I had to have enough distance to make it a personal as opposed to a private story. That was the only thing I could work on. I really wanted to work again. Everything else was unavailable to me.”
Then, there was filling the roles. Sødahl, who was 46 at the time of the first cancer, knew she wanted the veteran Skarsgård to play Tomas, but Anja was not as obvious. Hovig loved the script.
“I found the script one of the best screenplays I’ve ever read.” said Hovig from Oslo in between rehearsals for Bjørnstjerne Bjørnson’s Over Ability at National Theatret, debuting March 18. “I also found it kind of funny. Privately, I have this black sense of humor, and I’m always looking out for that in scripts. Life is not pretentious. Even when you’re having a really bad day, something weird can happen. This script had something of that, which I really loved. I believed in this love story between these two people. Maria had the right distance to her own story to make it a brilliant movie. She was a director, not the patient or survivor. She was through with that. She was just an ambitious director. I felt, what can I bring to this? I did six months of research on my own. Of course, I talked a lot to Maria, but I also wanted to talk to other people who had been on the same medications, to find out if I could bring something to the director that she didn’t know. That was really important to me.”
“I wasn’t casting myself or my husband,” said Sødahl “I was casting very good actors to enrich what’s on the paper. I didn’t know it was her until I did a really broad casting session. It was a very intuitive decision. This question has been asked so many times. It’s obvious. She’s a very good actress. Secondly, she’s a really good comedian, who actually has this timing and great dry wit. Not many actors can do that. She made a really odd couple with Stellan, which I really found fascinating. I could believe in them, as a couple with the long life together. She’s playful and very physical as an actress. I needed somebody who was outgoing and passionate. They were also persons who could see this story without sentimentality. I never asked her to play me. I wanted her to play Anja. I wanted her to be able to deliver something that is not on paper to surprise me. She did, perfectly well.”
For much of the movie, Anja unleashes harsh words at Tomas. “When you’re dying you become very self-absorbed,” said Sødahl. “I think that’s very human because you want to use all your energy to survive and keep your head above water.”
At one point he says, “Anja you make it hard to help.” He seems to have the same look on his face throughout the movie, confusion, uncertainty about what to say, trying to be understanding.
“His part is very difficult to play,” said Sødahl. “It’s so contained and minimal. It’s just how he uses his eyes, how he moves, a small gesture with his body and a whole lot of emotions. He has to receive everything. That was difficult in the beginning. He’s like the audience in a way. All the audience has to take this woman.”
Tomas invests himself, going to all the appointments, going online to find information—“my new friend pubmed.com.”
“He does his best, and she is really hard to help,” said Hovig. “She has her own career. She doesn’t want to depend on anyone. She’s a really strong person, very proud and strong-willed.”
Is it pent-up anger or the cancer talking?
“I think both,” said Hovig. “There is some very old anger from decades ago. I think it’s her personality, the pressure and also cancer talking. Being such a proud woman in this very vulnerable position makes her so angry, which comes from vulnerability. She hates being vulnerable.”
In the middle of the appointment scheduling the surgery, Anja is thrown off guard when Tomas asks the doctor, “Can we get married before the surgery?”
Sødahl said this happened.
The wedding date is Dec. 31, New Year’s Eve and Anja’s birthday. Tension abounds up to hours before the ceremony. Leaving the chapel and at the party, she smiles comfortably for the first time.
There were parts of the movie that were intriguing and educational. Anja loses her ability to read and needs Tomas to read the caller ID.
“That happened to me,” said Sødahl. “The left side of the brain is the sight center. When you have a metastasis there and operate, it destroys the ability to focus. It took me nine months to be able to read again.”
One of the most beautiful lines is when Anja says to Tomas that, before, memories were disorganized references to special occasions or geography or person, and now, “they’re in chronological order like a Power Point presentation.”
“I remember saying that,” said Sødahl. “Memories were never linear. When (you think) your life is going to end, suddenly your whole life is laid out linear and very graphic.”
Anja gets mad at Tomas, saying she would always love her biological children more than his.
“That’s such a taboo in the modern family,” said Sødahl. “Everyone should be treated the same. You shouldn’t love somebody more than others, especially our children. That’s not the way it is. It’s not about loving more or less. It’s about loving differently. It’s biology. Many people have thanked me for that.”
“When you’re clinging to your life your biological children suddenly get closer to you,” added Hovig. “I cried every time I read that scene. I think it’s because she says something that is really true for her without anger. It’s just her truth.”
Sødahl, who became friends with some of her doctors, cast actual doctors in the movie. They came from all over Norway to audition.
“Often, actors when they play doctors, psychiatrists, medical or health-care personnel, they give the characters so much empathy, they are so nice and understanding,” said Sødahl. “That’s not how real doctors are. The doctors were so confident in doing their parts. It’s much easier for them to look bad for it not to ring true.”
Hope was supposed to be a working title. “First, you believe it’s about will the person survive or not?” said Sødahl. “In the middle of the movie it becomes a love story. The principals are not aware they’re part of the real story. It’s not about her surviving. It’s about his love and her love. It’s a movie, which is much more about life and how we choose to live our life, all the choices we make, and not about death.”
Hope springs eternal. Maybe, this spring Hope will be taking center stage.
This article originally appeared in the Feb. 26, 2021, issue of The Norwegian American.