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‘Welcome,” reads the banner on the Norwegian island of Utøya, early in the new film directed and co-produced by Paul Greengrass. The kids are already arriving, a blur of happy faces, here for the Norwegian Labour party’s annual youth summer camp. Badly assembled tents and games of frisbee ensue. More than two hours later, the credits will roll. You may find you stay until they end, still needing a second or two to put yourself back together.
22 July is Greengrass’s account of the 2011 massacre on Utøya of 69 people, most of them teenagers, by the far-right terrorist Anders Behring Breivik (who had already killed eight people earlier in the day with a car bomb in Oslo). The result is searing. In his last film, Jason Bourne, Greengrass revived the character whose action adventures have filled half his career. This is the other half – the junction of film and journalism, drama and the record.
On Utøya, the camera settles on Viljar Hanssen (Jonas Strand Gravli), gawky and vocally idealistic. Twenty-five miles away, an adult man wears a police uniform purchased online – Breivik (Anders Danielsen Lie), engaged in the drab mechanics of mass murder. In central Oslo he parks one unmarked van outside the office of the Prime Minister and drives away in another. Moments later, the first vehicle explodes. Eight people died here. For Breivik it was just a prologue. Reaching Utøya on a tiny ferry, he politely tells the camp leader that given the chaos in Oslo, he is here to secure the island. “You will have to cover them up,” she says, gesturing to his guns. “They will scare the children.”
A Greengrass trademark is what he calls the “unknowing camera”, events always a beat ahead of us. Here, with dreadful certainty, we already know. You may be reminded of another of his films, United 93, the real-time transcript of the hijack of the fourth flight on 9/11. Unwatchable and yet impossible to look away from. The same applies to the scenes on Utøya.
But in United 93, the final descent fades to black. In 22 July, Breivik’s surrender only ends the first act. As in real life, he lays down his weapons to begin promoting his personal brand, a florid anti-immigration platform. A self-proclaimed soldier, he preens grotesquely.
For Greengrass, this is a challenge. There must be a point to evoking this much horror – and it has to be bigger than Breivik, a smirking narcissist who would love nothing more than a film about him. On screen, he relaxes in police custody, snacking on pizza, grandly holding forth. He pauses to proffer his index finger. He has sustained a small cut – probably, he says, from a skull fragment of one his victims. Medical attention is required. Otherwise, it might become infected. You could take such cartoon monstrosity as the sign of an over-eager scriptwriter. Police reports describe it as exactly what happened.
Soon, he has a lawyer, the stone-faced Geir Lippestad (Jon Øigarden). You can make out Greengrass behind Lippestad, wrestling with his own dilemma of how to make this film without becoming a stooge. Part of the answer is Viljar Hanssen– left for dead on the shore of Utøya. While Breivik has his finger bandaged, Hanssen undergoes emergency surgery. He wakes blind in one eye, bullet fragments still lodged in his brain. His uncertain recovery shares the story.
Legal drama unfolds. But the trial is not about guilt or innocence. Instead, Breivik demands Lippestad prove him sane. Greengrass peers into his political feedtank. Like United 93 a decade ago, July 22 serves as an origin story for continuing trauma. While Breivik’s network of far-right “brothers” may have been illusory, talk of hate groups across Europe feels grimly prophetic.
In the past, Greengrass’s masterstroke was lending the Bourne movies the feel of reportage. Now, the goal is different – to give real-world events proper gravity. 22 July is set in neutrally decorated rooms. The closest thing here to a rousing Hollywood speech is a vignette from another Utøya survivor, Lara (Seda Witt), recalling life as a refugee. A rare adrenal set piece – Hanssen, raging, careers across the tundra on a snowmobile – is spotlit by stillness elsewhere.
We hope that Hanssen overcomes. But the film’s restraint is its own kind of fightback. Writing about Utøya, Karl Ove Knausgaard called Norwegian culture “deeply sincere, almost innocent”. Greengrass embraces that. Refusing to make Breivik spectacular, the film pays tribute to process, how Norway gave him precisely what he was entitled to so as not to give him what he wanted – scale, martyrdom, glamour.
22 July is a brave and careful film. Midway through, Lippestad visits Breivik’s self-involved mother Wenche Behring (Hilde Olausson). What happened, she says, was awful. Then she adds: “The way the country’s going … it’s not like it used to be.” For a moment, Lippestad cannot find the words.
“These are difficult times,” he says, eventually. Greengrass has made the perfect film for them.
• 22 July has premiered at the Venice film festival. It is released by Netflix on 10 October.
Source: The Guardian
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