26th Oct2018

‘Utoya – July 22’ Review

by Matthew Turner

Stars: Andrea Berntzen, Aleksander Holmen, Elli Rhiannon Müller Osborne, Jenny Svennevig, Solveig Koløen Birkeland, Ingeborg Enes Kjevik, Sorosh Sadat, Brede Fristad, Aleksander Holmen, Karoline Schau | Written by Siv Rajendram Eliassen, Anna Bache-Wiig | Directed by Erik Poppe


Directed by Erik Poppe, this award-winning Norwegian drama recreates the events of the Utoya massacre in a single 72 minute take. Presenting the story entirely from the point of view of one of the victims, it’s a terrifying and horrifically immersive experience that is utterly devastating.

On 22 July, 2011, Norway suffered two tragic terrorist attacks, both committed by one man, a right-wing extremist. The first forms a prologue of sorts here, as CCTV footage shows the car bomb explosion in Oslo that killed eight people. Two hours later, the perpetrator travelled to the island of Utoya and opened fire on a group of defenceless teenagers at a socialist youth summer camp, killing 69 people in the course of 72 minutes.

After the prologue, the film cuts to the island and the single take begins, with an unsettling opening shot where the protagonist, 19 year old Kaya (newcomer Andrea Berntzen) looks right at the camera and appears to be addressing the audience as she says, “You’ll never understand”. It turns out she’s on the phone, talking to her mother, but the point is made and it feels like a moment from a Michael Haneke film.

As the film begins, news of the Oslo bombing has just begun to filter through to the students through patchy mobile phone coverage. Kaya, who appears to have something akin to a camp counsellor role, admonishes her younger sister Emilie (Elli Rhiannon Müller Osborne) for larking around and laughing while other people are worried about their loved ones. Minutes later, all hell breaks loose, as shots are heard and the students flee in panic, initially huddling together in a hall, before breaking for cover and trying to hide on the island. In the chaos, Kaya is separated from her sister, so she risks her life by returning to their tent in the hopes of finding her.

Throughout the film, the camera never leaves Kaya’s side, for the full 72 minutes of the terrifying ordeal. She’s a necessarily fictionalised character, with screenwriters Siv Rajendram Eliassen and Anna Bache-Wiig drawing on real-life accounts of the attack – accordingly, she encounters several other victims as she desperately searches for her sister, including a traumatised young boy (Magnus Moen) who refuses to take off his bright yellow raincoat, and a severely injured young woman (Solveig Koløen Birkeland) who begs Kaya not to leave her alone.

Berntzen makes a sensational debut as Kaya – perhaps it’s the island setting, but there’s something about her that recalls Jennifer Lawrence’s early work in Winter’s Bone and The Hunger Games. Either way, it’s an incredible performance (which deservedly won her a Norwegian Amanda Award for Best Actress), on a par with Laia Costa’s turn in Sebastian Schipper’s two-and-a-half hour single-take thriller Victoria (2015).

Wisely, the film chooses never to show or name the killer, and we glimpse his silhouette only once, in the distance. However, his presence is constantly felt throughout, thanks to the film’s harrowing sound design work, whereby the jolting crack of gunfire is heard every few minutes, sometimes far away, sometimes close at hand. In addition, Poppe orchestrates a heart-in-mouth sequence whereby Kaya, having returned to the tent where she last saw her sister, suddenly freezes as she hears slow, methodical footsteps outside.

On a surface level, the film’s single take calls to mind Gus Van Sant’s work in Elephant, which used a similar technique to recreate a high school massacre. However, in Van Sant’s film, it had an oddly distancing effect, while here it is almost unbearably realistic, putting you right there on the island to harrowing effect and generating a sense of complete and utter terror.

If there is digital trickery involved in the film’s apparently unbroken take, then it’s invisible to the naked eye. Consequently, the camerawork, courtesy of cinematographer Martin Otterbeck is nothing short of extraordinary, while the acting from all the students is utterly convincing. That said, the single-take gimmick does occasionally take you out of the film at crucial moments, especially when Kaya starts wading waist-deep through water as she rounds some cliffs and you find yourself wondering why you can’t see splashes and waves from the cameraman following right behind her.

**** 4/5

Utoya – July 22 is on limited release across the UK now.


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