Film review – Thelma (Joachim Trier, 2017)

Supernatural horror ‘Thelma’ begins with an unforgettable opening scene. A girl called Thelma, no more than 7 years old, is hunting with her father Trond (Henrik Rafaelsen). The man allows her to walk ahead of him, entranced by the sight of a deer and the prospect of its impending doom. Trond instead points the gun at his daughter’s head, with a expressive face that reads as both fear and temptation.

It’s an arresting opening shot that is hard feel anything but intrigue for. Why was a man willing to kill his own daughter? What sort of emotional termoil are they both experiencing? It’s brilliant filmmaking.

It is followed up with a long shot of a pedestrianised square. The viewer is essentially challenged to a game of ‘Guess Who The Main Character Is’. Eventually, the slow pan begins, finally focusing on Eili Harboe, who portrays the titular Thelma, some ten years after the opening scene.

Director Joachim Trier, in these opening shots, is warning us what he is about to do with his film – drawing us in slowly and leaving us guessing until he, by design, reveals what we need to know, with maximum impact.

The square, we learn, is at the University of Oslo, where Thelma has just begun her studies. A deeply-religious girl who refrains from drinking, she struggles to settle in and make friends. However, when she has a seizure in the middle of the study area of a library, she is helped by a girl called Anja (Kaya Wilkins).

Becoming increasingly friendly with Anja, Thelma begins to express herself more, eventually becoming physically attracted to her. However, her journey of self exploration doesn’t stop at her growing lustful emotions for Anja and she begins to worry about the causes of her seizures and the dark secrets that lie behind them.

What Trier has achieved with this story is nothing short of remarkable.

It’s a visual wonder, full of memorable set-pieces that jump out of the screen and leave a lasting memory. A scene at the opera oozes with tension as Anja and Thelma search for each other’s hands in the safety of a dark public space. With the accompanying concerto raising the pace and increasing filling the auditorium with volumous classical music, Thelma begins to feel another seizure engulfing her mind. It’s a stressful thing to watch, and captures the threat she feels perfectly.

Harboe is the perfect casting for the title role. She has a naturally distant expression on her face that gives nothing away. It borders on cold, making her eventual emotional expressions feel genuinely surprising. When she finally kisses Anja, you can feel her blushing. She knows it goes against everything she has learned as a child and is scared and excited about her new discovery.

The flashbacks serve as a means to reveal to truth behind her story, what the seizures mean and the shocking reason her father was willing to murder her as a child. The make-up department has done a fantastic job of making these flashbacks believable, without trying too hard to make them look like the parents are caked in make-up – too often a failing of bigger-budget releases.

The culmination of the film hits like a crescendo, and Trier plays the audience perfectly with a balanced build up to the final pay-off.

This genuinely is an excellent film and one that should do well outside its home country. It has also been submitted as Norway’s nomination for the Best Foreign Language Film at the 90th Academy Awards, 11 years after Trier’s first feature film achieved the same accolade. Here’s hoping it goes one step further and makes the shortlist – it deserves to be seen by a wider audience and this will help ensure this happens.

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