The following is a review of Utøya 22. Juli — Directed by Erik Poppe.
On July 22nd 2011, Norway was attacked by the terrorist Anders Behring Breivik. He began by detonating a bomb in Norway’s capital, before he went to the island Utøya and shot and killed dozens of young men and women from a political youth organization. Now, almost seven years later, Norwegian director Erik Poppe has made a film about the Utøya massacre.
The film follows Kaja (played by Andrea Berntzen), a politically interested member of the youth organization, who wants so desperately to take care of her sister, Emilie (played by Elli Rhiannon Müller Osbourne). After they receive the news of the Oslo attack, Kaja and her sister are separated, and, when the first shots on Utøya are fired, Kaja’s sister is nowhere to be seen. The film is then interested in following Kaja in her search for her sister and her fight for survival.
Utøya 22. Juli asks you to witness the act of terror, realize exactly what happened, and, perhaps most devastatingly, the film, by its very nature, forces you to put faces to the victims of the attack. The film forces you to remember, and it is tough on its audience in its representation of helplessness in the face of a mostly unseen brutal force.
For some, this film will be unbearable. Many will feel that this film has come too soon. But this film was going to come sooner or later, and I imagine many more films about the 2011 Norway attacks are on their way. As such, it is remarkable how thoughtful this film is. And that is really what I am left with here — Poppe has made a thoughtful, but realistic film about survival that, in spite of everything, always shows a lot of love for the young people that were lost that day.
In that sense, this is a respectful film. It isn’t a thriller, which I assume many directors would’ve turned it into, and it isn’t really a horror movie either. It is a story about survival and the lengths one is willing to go to find someone you love. Kaja goes through hell in an effort to find her sister.
In Poppe’s attempt to make Utøya 22. Juli a realistic version of what happened, he has stripped many cinematic telltale signs from the film. There isn’t any background music, there aren’t really many cuts. If you can look past the opening scenes depicting the Oslo attack, Utøya 22. Juli is basically made to look like one long continuous shot — a one-shot movie.
Stripping the film of all of these elements to instead use a filmmaking technique such as the single long shot could easily be regarded as little more than a gimmick — a marketable filmic trait that feels cheap. That, however, isn’t the case with Utøya 22. Juli. Poppe’s film forces you to take in and endure the 72 minutes that Breivik’s attack lasted. That means we get a lot of scenes where characters are paralyzed in place and unable to move because of the overwhelming horror of the sudden and sharp shots that startled them, injured them, or killed their friends.
That does, however, also mean that you are very much aware of the passing of time, and it does make it feel like the film starts and stops as it goes along. As such, the one shot technique is both a gift and a curse. It intentionally makes you uncomfortable and terrified, but it also makes you somewhat restless as you watch it in the theater — you can almost feel people internally screaming that they should flee or stay still. But then again, as one character says to the camera, “You’ll never understand.” Although, it is revealed, she was actually having a conversation with someone, and, as such, the fourth wall break isn’t exactly as direct as it may have felt.
But if that direct address were meant as a message, I am unsure who exactly it was meant for. Is it politically-charged (i.e. is the message for the attacker) or is it meant for us? Mine own reading of that direct address is that Poppe wants to startle audiences and make audience-members a part of the experience — an attempt to draw us in by acknowledging that we are watching her, before we become witness to the Utøya massacre.
At the very end of the film, Poppe seems to suggest that the film is meant to make you realize the terrifying, ruthless, and destructive power of the ideology behind Breivik’s actions. As I have noted, I do see that this film is suggesting that we need to remember what happened, but Poppe stays so far from Breivik and his intentions that I don’t think he manages to actually get any real message across. Utøya 22. Juli is a tense and terrifying story about survival, but I don’t think Poppe infused it with much else.
There will definitely be some people who not only think that this film has come out way too soon, but that this film is also shining a light on something destructive and that, by extension, it perhaps is glorifying the act of violence. These films will come out whether we like it or not, and we are lucky that Poppe’s appropriately thoughtful but tense film is the first of note to come out.
Ultimately, Poppe’s Utøya 22. Juli gives us a realistically tense re-enactment of the events that took place on the island of Utøya on July 22nd 2011. The film is as effective and startling as it can be without being disrespectful to those affected by the Utøya massacre, and it leaves you with an empty and exhausting feeling when you leave the theater. We will probably never understand exactly what these men and women went through on Utøya, but Poppe does a good job of putting us in their shoes without glorifying anything or anyone.
8.5 out of 10
– Jeffrey Rex Bertelsen