Happy Happy Review
The Nordic invasion continues apace. First there was Wallander, then Steig Larsson made an impact with The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, then came The Killing. Soon enough Scandinavian crime fiction seemed to be everywhere: sequels, spin-offs, big screen adaptations and English-language remakes. Cash-ins too, which meant that for every fresh standout like The Bridge there would also be a film such as ID:A that felt distinctly underwhelming (especially in such company). Within the space of a few years it’s become incredibly easy to get extremely well acquainted with the ins-and-outs of ‘Nordic noir’; the likes of Headhunters, Those Who Kill, Jägarna and its follow-up being as easy to see as any of the big names. And yet, naturally, there was more to Scandinavia than crime and so, gradually, other genres have been getting a look in. With Rare Imports and Troll Hunter we’ve had the chance to sample a particularly dark blend of fantasy. With Borgen we’ve been introduced to the Danish West Wing. And with A Royal Affair we’ve witnessed opulent Oscar-nominated period drama. The latest arrival, Happy Happy, offers up the Nordic equivalent of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, kind of.
Under such circumstances it hardly needs mentioning that the title is an ironic one. The original Norwegian, Sykt lykkelig, translates as ‘Insanely Happy’ and relates primarily to Kaja (Agnes Kittelsen). She’s married to Erik (Joachim Rafaelson) with whom she has a son, Theodor (Oskar Hernæs Brandsø). Needless to say, her chirpiness is something of a mask, as becomes apparent when the family get new neighbours in the form of Danish couple Sigve (Henrik Rafaelson) and Elisabeth (Maibritt Saerens) and their adopted African son Noa (Ram Shihab Ebedy), who is roughly the same age as Theodor. Seemingly the perfect family, masks are being worn here too: they have moved to Norway as a means of coping with a recent infidelity. And so, as the couples get to know each other, uncomfortable tensions give rise and uneasy truths will out. Meanwhile, their children are involved in an elaborate game of ‘slave’ wherein Noa must do everything that Theodor says.
Given the popularity of all things Nordic, some of our central quartet may well be vaguely familiar. Joachim Rafaelson had a supporting role in Headhunters, while Saerens could be spotted in episodes of Wallander and the first series of The Killing. Kittelsen appeared in Max Manus: Man of War and, more recently, this year’s Norwegian contender for the Best Foreign Film Academy Award, Kon-Tiki (which has yet to find a UK distributor, but will surely do so soon enough). They’re an experienced bunch and, more importantly, they’re a solid bunch, ably navigating both the heavyweight emotional content and the more awkwardly humorous moments. With regards to the latter it’s interesting to see the “laugh-out-loud funny” quote on the front of the DVD case as it suggests some kind of all-out comedy. Yet it’s the darker, more serious turns that tend to stand out.
Director Anne Sewitsky, here making her feature debut following a handful of shorts, has opted for the candid tone. Happy Happy was shot digitally, which tends to flatten out the snowy Norwegian landscape and instead concentrate on the actors’ faces, and somewhat matter-of-factly. The BBFC warn of ‘strong sex’ on the back sleeve, though that’s mainly a reflection of the impassive manner in which such scenes are handled rather than their explicitness. Admittedly the end results are not quite so stark or incisive as John Cassavetes’ Faces, say, or Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, but then I doubt Sewitsky and screenwriter Ragnhild Tronvoll wished to go quite so far. Their characters, at least, are a touch more likeable and, consequently, Happy Happy is rather likeable too. Indeed, awards both at home (two nominations and one win in Norway’s Amanda Awards) and abroad (a jury prize at the 2011 Sundance Film Festival) are the perfect demonstration of that.
Happy Happy comes to the UK courtesy of TLA Releasing. Whereas in the US the film has been treated to a Blu-ray edition (region-locked) from Magnolia, here we find a DVD-only release. Happy Happy comes in its original aspect ratio and looks to be in a generally fine condition. A handful of scenes appear a tad flat, though it’s likely that such instances are inherent in the film’s production. Damage is non-existent as are any technical ill-effects, whilst the English subtitles are optional. The soundtrack is similarly in good shape and appears here in DD5.1 form. The only extra is the theatrical trailer, plus the disc opens with promos for High Art, Jitters, Next Door and Kiss Me.