Review: Hope Is a Matter-of-Fact Corrective to So Many Films About Dying

Maria Sødahl considers the extreme emotions provoked by a medical emergency with an impressive force of clarity.

Photo: KimStim

Given its title, one could be forgiven for expecting writer-director Maria Sødahl’s Hope to tend toward the mawkish, or to testify in belabored fashion to the indomitability of the human spirit in the face of great odds. After all, this is a drama about a middle-aged woman, Anya (Andrea Bræin Hovig), who, early in the film, learns that she has terminal brain cancer and who initially tells only her longtime partner, Tomas (Stellan Skarsgård), about her diagnosis. Anya may at first suggest a stoic martyr, ready to suffer in silence alongside Tomas, but Sødahl’s nuanced, measured treatment of her material, including her unwavering attention to character detail—never pulling her punches when revealing either of her protagonists’ flaws or lingering regrets—consistently plays against audience expectations.

In Hope, cancer places 20 years of mistakes and missed opportunities into heightened focus for its main characters, with Anya forced to confront her bitterness at having put her career as a choreographer on the back burner in order to raise the three children she had with Tomas, as well as those from his previous marriage. That Tomas never proposed to her and showed her little affection for long stretches of their time together only allowed Anya’s resentment to fester and, now, explode in the wake of her cancer diagnosis, which comes on the heels of a string of performances that earned her rave reviews. All the while, Tomas is plagued with guilt over having prioritized his work over his family and his relationship with Anya.

A less interesting film might have treated the last few weeks or months of Anya’s life as a jumping-off point for a portrait of her and Tomas finally mending their fractured relationship. But Hope chooses instead to explore the tension that lingers between Anya and Tomas as they navigate their way through this life-altering event. When Tomas half-heartedly proposes to Anya during a discussion with her doctor, the prospect of a looming wedding sets the stage for a potential revival of romance between the couple. But in the end, even this gesture on his part mostly serves to illuminate the failures that soured their relationship over the years.

Sødahl’s decision to have the film unfold between Christmas and New Years Eve, a time where family bonding is an unspoken requirement, lends the proceedings a heightened sense of urgency and uneasiness. And the director’s subtle balancing of tone ensures that the film avoids sappiness, as well as never gives in to nihilism. There’s a force of clarity to her consideration of the extreme emotions that come with a family contending with a medical emergency—undoubtedly informed by Sødahl’s own battles with cancer—that allows Hope to stand apart from less accomplished depictions of people living out their impending deaths.

At its most bleak, Hope recalls the unflinching realism of Maurice Pialat’s A Mouth Agape and We Won’t Grow Old Together. But Sødahl tempers her film’s cynical take on romance and relationships with moments, however brief, of tenderness between Anya and Tomas, from the latter’s extensive research into his wife’s cancer diagnosis to a touching final shot that, imagined or not, suggests that the couple’s love for one another is perhaps more resilient than it was just weeks before. As such, Hope is ultimately less a film about dying of cancer than it is about the ways that such an event can reshape our thought patterns and force us to confront and make peace with the decisions, for better or worse, that we did and didn’t make.

 Cast: Andrea Bræin Hovig, Stellan Skarsgård, Elli Rhiannon Müller Osbourne, Alfred Vatne, Steinar Klouman Hallert, Daniel Storm Forthun Sandbye, Eirik Hallert, Dina Enoksen Elvehaug  Director: Maria Sødahl  Screenwriter: Maria Sødahl  Distributor: KimStim  Running Time: 125 min  Rating: R  Year: 2019

Derek Smith

Derek Smith's writing has appeared in Tiny Mix Tapes, Apollo Guide, and Cinematic Reflections.

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