U - July 22 Review
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Kaja (Andrea Berntzen) – a fresh-faced teenage girl – looks into the camera and appears to directly address us, the audience: “You will never understand. Just listen to me. OK?” It turns out she is on the phone to her mum, but Kaja’s words have a purpose. She's telling us what’s about to unfold is a warning and that everyone here in 2018 must pay attention because it could happen again.
U – July 22 is about a horrifying act of mass murder. On that date in 2011, neo-Nazi Anders Behring Breivik slaughtered 77 people in Norway. Based on the testimonies of survivors, Erik Poppe’s gruelling film provides a fictionalised retelling of that infamous day, concentrating specifically on the target of Breivik’s second assault, Utøya island.
Proceedings begin with CCTV footage of the car-bomb in Oslo’s government quarter that kicked off the attacks, then switch to Utøya – 40km away – where Norway’s Labour Party is holding a camping weekend for members of its Youth League. But these are no hard-bitten activists nor Marxist revolutionaries who may have found a way to fight back – they’re teenage kids, some younger than that. Magnus (Aleksander Holmen) is only there to “pick up girls”.
Kaja and her friends are on the damp, muddy campsite eating waffles when all hell breaks loose with the frenzied immediacy of an enemy assault in Platoon or Saving Private Ryan. We hear gunshots, see crowds of kids sprinting out of the woods. Kaja and co. hide but after realising her younger sister Emilie (Elli Rhiannon Müller Osborne) is missing, she leaves the group to look for her. We then follow Kaja as she makes what is essentially a descent into hell, complete with terrified teens hiding, fleeing, sobbing and dying while Breivik – who remains largely unseen throughout – stalks them through the woods with his rifle.
The attack on Utøya unfolds in real time and Poppe captures the panic and confusion of the situation in a manner that is, by turns, terrifying and unbearably tense. As the whole thing builds to a crescendo and delivers a late twist, it is also genuinely thrilling. Even a film rooted in the grim reality of far-right terrorism cannot escape the fact it is, after all, a piece of entertainment like any other.
U – July 22’s muted colour palette and handheld camera should be expected, but the film pulls a few surprises elsewhere. Music is as absent here as Breivik himself, Poppe preferring his sound design team to take centre stage. The use of long silences is particularly effective, especially when broken by the staccato clatter of renewed gunfire and accompanying screams of terror. There is little violence – imagining the damage being inflicted by the heavily-armed Breivik is more than enough. The fact it’s all done in a single take – like Sebastian Schipper’s underrated Victoria (2015) – is similarly noteworthy and impressive.
Berntzen – in her first film role – appears in almost every scene. The 20-year-old anchors the entire story, especially while interacting with characters who say little – a traumatised young boy, a dying girl – when she is effectively talking to herself. She is well matched by Holmen as Magnus, who only appears for about 10 minutes in all, including a powerful scene with Berntzen towards the end. If Kaja is our guide through the madness of Utøya, then Magnus is there to remind us of the world that still exists away from the island, complete with its “massive kebabs” and “Man United in the Champions League final”. He brings hope and humour.
Poppe’s refusal to name or even properly show Breivik is perfectly understandable but backfires. Effectively erasing him from the narrative gives the neo-Nazi power, makes him seem enigmatic, like a supernatural villain in the horror flick U – July 22 occasionally resembles. But this isn’t Jason or Freddy we’re dealing with, just another pathetic human being unhinged by racism and hatred.
Paul Greengrass’ 22 July – also about the Utøya massacre and recently released by Netflix – isn’t as visceral or interesting as Poppe’s film but its portrayal of Breivik is spot on. Yes, he was intelligent and cunning enough to pull off his wretched plan but he was also an arrogant fantasist and smirking coward – someone who shot a group of unarmed children with hollow-point bullets. Saying his name, showing his face or even grappling with his deranged ideology, in no way dignifies him.