Director: Niels Arden Oplev
Screenplay: Steen Bille, Niels Arden Oplev
If you happen to be a fan of author Steig Larsson’s Millenium trilogy and the subsequent films it spawned, then you’ll know Danish director Niels Arden Oplev as the man behind Män som hatar kvinnor (The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo). One year prior to that film, Oplev co-wrote and directed To verdener, a film that was modestly fêted on the festival circuit in its native Denmark, as well as surprising the box office with over 300,000 tickets sold.
The film tells the true story of Sara (Rosaline Mynster), a 17-year-old girl living in a devout Jehovah’s Witness family. When Sara’s dabbling in things forbidden by her religion leads to a romance with 23-year-old atheist Teis (Johan Philip Asbæk), her faith as well as her ties to her family are tested. Throughout the film, Sara continues to walk a fine line between being on the verge of banishment from the faith by the elders as well as her family, and forgiveness.
To verdener commences with Sara’s mother Karen (Sarah Boberg) and father Andreas (Jens Jørn Spottag) announcing to their three children that Andreas has commit a sin against Jehovah and the family. Though it isn’t specifically stated what that sin is, it’s evident that Andreas has had an extra-marital affair. Both Karen and Andreas tell their children that the decision as to which parent must now leave the household is entirely up to them. Sara is quick to point out that forgiveness is a necessary virtue and because Karen refuses to forgive Andreas, it should be Karen who leaves. Though shocked by this decision, Karen obliges her children’s wishes and moves out. This sole action sets up much of what sort of person Sara is, foreshadowing her own attempts at finding understanding and forgiveness amongst her family and church.
From this point onward, as much as I hate to say it, To verdener felt increasingly like a Movie of the Week – a European Movie of the Week, mind you – but a Movie of the Week none the less. This I can surmise is due in large part to the actual thinness of the plot and the lack of any particular momentum of the film itself. For starters, Sara’s great love affair with Teis is little more than a tool to ignite Sara’s moral dilemma. He’s 23-years-old and at no point is there any indication exactly why he so quickly falls in love so hard with Sara. The entire reason as to what attracts a 23-year-old Danish musician and atheist to a 17-year-old Jehovah’s Witness is severely lacking. Sara is the centre piece of this film and for this reason, Oplev chose to place every last drop of the film’s energy into proving to the audience that she has one big decision to make. Which of course, she does. Still, that shouldn’t mean that the rest of the cast should be relegated to mere set pieces.
There were also too many unanswered questions, such as why Sara’s mother seemed to only slightly obey the strict laws of the Jehovah’s Witnesses and still remain perfectly accepted within the group. I’m also confused as to why on the first night where Sara sleeps at Teis’ apartment after missing the last train home, that she didn’t simply take a taxi or even walk. Yes, at heart she was not fully supportive of the church’s vows and laws, but at the time when she misses her train, we are lead to believe that she really did not want to spend the night at Teis’ apartment.
In general, it seemed that To verdener had little room to go after it established that Sara would struggle to find a balance between her faith and her life. This struggle, while potentially capable of powering a strongly made drama, fizzles and becomes repetitive rather quickly under Oplev’s command. The ending comes as no surprise, further strengthening the film’s inability to shake off the melodramatic weight of a Movie of the Week.