03rd Nov2017

‘Thelma’ Review

by Matthew Turner

Review by Matthew Turner

Stars: Eili Harboe, Kaya Wilkins, Henrik Rafaelsen, Ellen Dorrit Petersen, Grethe Eltervag, Oskar Pask, Steiner Klouman Hallert | Written by Joachim Trier, Eskil Vogt | Directed by Joachim Trier


Co-written and directed by Norwegian filmmaker Joachim Trier (Louder Than Bombs), this compelling psychological thriller is part coming-of-age drama and part supernatural chiller, layered with complex emotion and anchored by a superb central performance. Imagine an arthouse take on Carrie and you won’t be far wrong.

Thelma opens with a supremely unsettling prologue sequence, in which a father silently aims his rifle at his young daughter’s head while they’re out hunting deer. The story then jumps forward to find a now teenage Thelma (Eili Harboe) studying at Oslo university and having difficulty making friends, until she meets beautiful fellow student Anja (Kaya Wilkins) after suffering a severe seizure in the university library.

The pair quickly become close, with Anja introducing Thelma to her group of friends, much to the consternation of Thelma’s strictly religious parents (Henrik Rafaelsen and Ellen Dorrit Petersen), who check up on her with daily phone calls. However, when the relationship takes a romantic turn, Thelma is terrified by the intensity of her feelings and her seizures become more and more violent (as well as having an apparent effect on nearby wildlife), prompting her to investigate her mysterious condition.

Trier’s script – co-written with regular collaborator Eskil Vogt – takes a compelling slow-burn approach to Thelma’s story, allowing us to make our own assumptions about her religious upbringing and the effect it might have had on her childhood. To that end, the film’s revelations (told mostly through flashback) are powerfully emotional, not least in the way they re-shape the central family relationships.

The film carries strong echoes of De Palma’s Carrie, given their shared conflation of oppressive religion, emerging sexuality and telekinetic powers, but Trier stirs in a number of other themes and ideas, including guilt, repression and the sublimation of desire. Similarly, Trier’s control of the film’s tone is assured throughout, resulting in a subtle note of ambiguity that gets more and more chilling the more you think about it.

In addition, Trier orchestrates some terrific scenes, the highlight of which is a splendidly Hitchcockian sequence, set in a concert hall, where Anja brushes her fingers over Thelma’s leg, setting off a psychic reaction that causes the ceiling fixtures to shake and shift, in a moment that’s simultaneously erotic and terrifying. Trier also has a great eye for an unusual image, most notably a few strands of hair mysteriously embedded in a window.

On top of that, Thelma is strikingly shot, courtesy of cinematographer Jakob Ihre, who makes particularly strong use of strobe lighting in two contrasting sequences. There’s also a great score from Ola Fløttum that considerably heightens the unsettling atmosphere.

Harboe (who was in Norwegian thriller The Wave) is mesmerising as Thelma, projecting heart-breaking vulnerability (she has a smile that lights up the screen) and generating palpable chemistry with Wilkins. However, there’s a subtle shift as she learns more about herself, and Harboe plays it beautifully, under-stating Thelma’s emotional processes to complex, provocative effect.

Smartly structured and strikingly directed, Trier’s highbrow genre flick is equal parts powerfully moving and genuinely chilling, with images and moments that will stay with you a long time. Highly recommended.

**** 4/5


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