The following is a review of Netflix’s 22 July — Directed by Paul Greengrass.
Paul Greengrass’ latest, 22 July, is a film about the 2011 Norway attacks set in Norway, starring Norwegian actors who are all speaking English. Greengrass’ feature film is not to be confused with Norwegian director Erik Poppe’s 2018 film about the 2011 Norway attacks, Utøya 22. Juli (sometimes referred to as U: July 22), set in Norway, starring Norwegian actors who all speak in their native language.
It is easy to be confused by these two films with similar titles, plots, and the exact same release year. Poppe’s film, which I thought was really strong, is not likely to be remembered by anyone but Scandinavians and festival-going film critics. Greengrass’ film meant for English-speaking countries will absolutely overshadow Poppe’s film, which is a shame because it isn’t as good as Poppe’s much more interesting feature.
For those unfamiliar with the attack, Greengrass’ film serves as the best summation of what happened. It is a conventional and simple run-through of the aftermath of the attack that perhaps bites off more than it can chew, but which doesn’t aim to detail the attack in more than a few terrifying minutes. After twenty-to-twenty-five minutes, Breivik has fired his last shot, and thereafter the film is all about the aftermath in Norway, the lives of the families affected, the actual trial, and the terrorist’s conversations with his lawyer.
The Norwegian film directed by Poppe, on the other hand, is just about what happened on Utøya. Poppe’s film manages to show much care for the lives that were lost, even though Poppe’s film is startling and terrifying. I saw that film many months ago, and the best thing Poppe gets across is the humanity, bravery, and compassion of the young men and women that were lost at the summer camp.
Poppe consciously didn’t pay attention to Breivik, the terrorist, but instead barely showed him. He rested the camera on the faces of Norway’s young men and women, and it followed them around from start to finish in what is presented as one long take. I was very impressed with that film, but Greengrass’ film doesn’t work for me nearly as well.
Now, one thing that I have to mention is that Greengrass unlike Poppe is hindered by his attempt to have the names of actual victims in the film. Viljar Hanssen, here played by Jonas Strand Gravli, did go through what the character went through in this film, so to alter his road to recovery too much might’ve been disrespectful to him and his family.
That said, 22 July is unfocused in the aftermath of the attack. By trying to focus on politicians, victims, families, lawyers, the community, Norwegian democracy, and Anders Breivik at the same time, the film bites off more than it can chew. Many of the characters that Viljar interacts with add to the film’s long list of subplots that I didn’t think worked. The film becomes too long as a result.
Viljar’s road to recovery following the attack works well as a metaphor for Norway’s youth, as he is getting back on his feet to confront Breivik in the trial, but, with that having been said, the road to recovery is riddled with clichés.
Ironically, the subplot that works best might be the most controversial. A large part of the film is focused on Anders Breivik (played with an appropriately penetrating coldness by Norwegian actor Anders Danielsen Lie), the terrorist responsible for the attack, and when he asks for his lawyer, Geir Lippestad (played by Jon Øigarden), the film finds an interesting angle to the trial that is at the center of the aftermath of the attack.
With that having been said, I was not comfortable with seeing Breivik as much as we see him here. You don’t want to give Breivik a platform, and Greengrass runs a risk by giving Breivik’s character as much screentime as he does here.
Some would say that you would get more out of reading the Wikipedia entry on the attacks than watching this film. It isn’t entirely untrue, because this film doesn’t really dig deep enough into anything to become its own thing. Whereas Poppe’s film is an ambitious and terrifying but caring film that I will remember for a long time, Greengrass’ feature film doesn’t improve upon my understanding of what happened.
Then again, perhaps it wasn’t meant for me. Although I am not Norwegian, I am Scandinavian. I have relatives in Norway, and Norway is a neighbour to my home country. This is an event that I imagine I remember differently than Americans or Brits do. I am sure this film will help them to understand what happened.
But the film may not end up meaning much to those closer to the events, which does then make it a confusing choice to have Norwegian actors speak in English. Choose one or the other. It rings false and feels fake, and this is something that I had a tough time getting over. The thick Norwegian accents were jarring to me.
Ultimately, that may be the biggest problem for Greengrass’ film. I don’t think it would be right of him to say that he made this for Norway. I mean, he clearly didn’t, when he had asked his actors to speak in English. 22 July will absolutely not be the film that those close to the events will want, but it also might have a problem with audiences unaware of the event as, I think, many such people will seek this film out to see the first twenty-five minutes and then not be interested in what happens next, which is a real shame.
When it is all said and done, I do not think that Paul Greengrass’ 22 July is disrespectful to the victims of the 2011 Norway attacks. I would, however, suggest that anyone interested in watching a film about Utøya should seek out Erik Poppe’s Utøya 22. Juli instead, even though it certainly isn’t an easy film to watch. Unfortunately, Greengrass’ film lacks depth and its style is far too conventional and inauthentic for the film to be effective and memorable.
6 out of 10
– Jeffrey Rex Bertelsen