Toronto selector previews Nordic films on show.

EXCLUSIVE-Steve Gravestock, senior programmer at the Toronto International Film Festival outlines his 2017 Nordic selection, two days before the festival’s opening with Borg vs McEnroe.

“2017 will almost certainly be remembered as a watershed year for Nordic cinema. Among the successes so far: a Silver Bear, Best Director award at the Berlinale for Aki Kaurismäki (The Other Side of Hope) and the Palme d’Or at Cannes for Ruben Östlund (The Square). 

In September, Janus Metz’s Borg/McEnroe opens the Toronto International Film Festival, the first time a Nordic film has ever kicked things off in Toronto. There are fewer films with deeper Nordic connections: it’s from SF Studios, one of the world’s oldest and most revered production companies, with a Danish director and one lead, Sverrir Gudnason, who was born in Iceland and raised in Sweden, plus Swedish stars Tuva Novotny; Stellan Skarsgard thrown in for good measure.

Borg/McEnroe is one of the most insightful and psychologically acute glimpses at what it can take to become a premiere athlete – and boasts an edgy, miasmic tone reflecting the waves of anxiety and nausea which grip both Borg and McEnroe as they battle expectations, their opponents and themselves in their campaign to win the most prestigious event in tennis:  Wimbledon. (A similar atmosphere was evident in Armadillo, Metz’s tense documentary about Danish soldiers in Afghanistan, which screened at TIFF in 2010).

Metz is joined in the Gala programme by veteran director Björn Runge’s UK/Swedish production, The Wife.  Based on Meg Wolitzer’s novel, the film stars Jonathan Pryce as an author about to accept the Nobel Prize and Glenn Close as his wife, who is suddenly, reluctantly, thrust into the spotlight. Though not a Nordic production, Danish master Bille August is also part of the Gala programme with 55 Steps, about a fight for patient rights, starring Helena Bonham Carter, Hillary Swank and Jeffrey Tambor.

Kaurismäki’s latest The Other Side of Hope, in the Masters programme, shows once again why he’s universally praised. As stylized and idiosyncratic as anything he’s done, with the same disarming love for his lost rambling heroes, The Other Side also shows his inveterate fearlessness in addressing the refugee crisis and the rise of right wing elements in Finland and by extension Europe and elsewhere. The film’s deep humanism and empathy makes it a fitting film to honour Finland’s centenary.

The Platform section includes films by two of the most exciting filmmakers working today: Oslo’s Iram Haq and Stockholm’s Lisa Langseth. Haq, who received critical accolades for her fearless gutsy debut I am Yours, returns to Toronto with the riveting What Will People Say, which examines the myriad tensions on a Muslim family in Oslo from both in and outside their community – and boasts memorable performances from TIFF Rising Star Maria Mozdahas the teenage heroine, caught between the promises of contemporary Oslo and the demands of tradition, and Adil Hussain as her doting father, who succumbs to community pressure to punish her in ways that can only break his heart. Few films have dealt with cultural contradictions with the intelligence and compassion Haq does here.

Langseth’s Euphoria stars Alicia Vikander (A Royal Wedding, Hotel) whose estranged sister (Eva Green) demands she accompany her on a mysterious trip. As with her previous films, Langseth introduces us to an ostensibly conventional reality but we end up, unexpectedly, in a very different world indeed. The phenomenal cast also includes Charlotte Rampling and Charles Dance.

Several exceptional debuts - Jens Assur’s Ravens, Jonas Matzow Gulbrandsen’s Valley of Shadows and Ása Helga Hjörleifsdóttir’s The Swan - deal with the untenable, imperious demands made by the adult world on children and adolescents. All of them are world premieres in the Discovery section.

In the devastating Ravens, one of the most visually striking and assured debuts in recent memory, the conflict derives from an ailing, tired father’s desire to have his son assume stewardship of the struggling family farm, despite his obvious lack of interest and his intense curiosity about the world outside the remote rural area they live in. The film brilliantly, painfully outlines the Sisyphean travails for the father, while capturing the area’s rugged unwelcoming even surreal beauty. Like What Will People Say, the pressure to conform to tradition comes from unexpected quarters.

In the haunting horror film/fairy tale, Valley of Shadows, a young boy Aslak is caught between the superstitions and fears of childhood and the more prosaic, yet more sinister landscape of the adult world as he struggles with a heart wrenching loss. Meanwhile, the local farmer is convinced there’s a wolf on the loose, but the children are convinced it’s something far more supernatural. Like an early del Toro film, Valley is poetic and elliptical and its distinctive look -courtesy of the director’s brother Marius- suggests the delicate creepy engravings which often accompany fairy tales.

Beautifully and sensitively adapted from a prominent novel by Gudbergur Bergsson, which similarly focuses on a child caught between myth and reality, The Swan hinges on a longstanding Icelandic tradition of sending children to rural areas to toughen them up and teach them the virtues of independence. But when “troublesome” nine-year old Sól (she shoplifted something but her real crime is being a burden to her overtaxed mother) is sent to a distant relative’s farm, it’s far from the wholesome respite her mother envisioned, exposing her to the harshest hypocrisies of the adult world. Her only defense against these realities is the disturbing local mythology. 

For both Sól and Aslak magic is a kind of solace and an escape, but it’s the exact opposite for the eponymous heroine of celebrated director Joachim Trier’s latest Thelma, a sharp, eerie film in the Special Presentations programme. The film flirts with the horror genre, but grounds its chills in the context of real-life terrors, specifically oppressive, excessively devout, hypercritical parents, the pressure of addressing your sexuality, and the fear that you may have more power over your life, and the lives of others, than you initially thought. And of course, it’s about telekinesis and mind control. Thelma does riff off horror movies, after all.

Discomfort with old and new realities percolate through two other titles in the Special Presentation.

A similar schism is apparent in Ruben Östlund’s prize-winning The Square, the funniest film to triumph at Cannes in many years. The film follows a Danish curator who finds that Sweden is not nearly as amenable as he hoped when he takes over a new art gallery specializing in post-modern work. In a string of escalating catastrophes, he finally realizes that his patrons aren’t exactly as adventurous as he – nor is he as adventurous or as free from propriety as the artists he reps, or the young people he works with. One of the funniest, fruitful threads in the movie is the sub-plot involving a group of hilariously tone deaf twenty something web marketers and the 40 something hipster hero realizing he’s not nearly as with it as he used to be.

Starring two of Denmark’s best, Trine Dyrholm (The Commune) and Nikolai Lie Kas (The Green Butchers), Peter Schønau Fog’s You Disappear begins as a courtroom drama about mental health, focusing on free will and responsibility, but it ends as a very different kind of drama, posing compelling questions about perspective, identity and even narrative. Driven by subtle direction from Fog and great performances (especially Dyrholm), the film is a precise, risky and consistently rewarding balancing act, forcing us to consider our own prejudices and assumptions, and how they drive what we can see and what we cannot.

Discord of a different kind is on tap in Hlynur Pálmason’s exceptional Winter Brothers, set in a dour mining community populated by migrant workers who live in clapboard shacks, seemingly held together by mould, repressed rage and the constant drone of the giant machines the men seem to serve. The film focuses on two brothers, Johan, who is older and accepted, and Emil, who is frantic, scattered, and largely reviled. Emil’s lone outlets are lusting for the lone woman in town; making moonshine and watching an ancient instructional videotape demonstrating how to properly shoot a rifle. (In a fine surrealist touch, the old technology Emil uses to watch the video has an otherworldly, ghostly feel.) Emil’s isolation is exacerbated and his safety threatened when another labourer blames him for his brother falling ill.

Sibling rivalries and long simmering family tensions explode in Zaida Bergroth’s insightful Miami and Haftstein Gunnar Sigurdsson’s hilarious Under the Tree. In Miami, the shy and cautious Anna who has been separated from her older sister Angela for years, decides to seek her out after the death of their father, and is introduced to a radically different world. The outgoing Angela, an emotional and financial train wreck, works as a stripper in seedy clubs around Finland and recruits Anna to help her out, following a fight with her other dancers. A road movie which, like the best of them, is as much an emotional and psychological journey as a physical one, Miami is about how deep the bonds between siblings can be. The film shows the same exemplary sensitivity and intelligence that marked Bergroth’s earlier films, Last Cowboy Standing and The Good Son.

Under the Tree recounts the feud between neighbours over two of the rarest items in Iceland: sunlight and trees. One family is ferociously proud of their tree, the tallest one in their suburb; the other – especially the much younger second wife -- is livid that it blocks the sun while she’s trying to sunbathe. The feud escalates quickly and soon encompasses missing pets and defiled garden gnomes and even worse. A wide ranging social satire from some of the team responsible for the international hit Rams, Under the Tree may be the sharpest comedy to come from Iceland in a decade and is packed with surprise turns.

Last but not least, is perhaps the most singular film in the selection, Teemu Nikki’s outrageous Euthanizer. Starring Finland’s most employed actor Matti Onnismaa in his first lead role in a movie, Euthanizer is what might happen if Monte Hellman (circa Cockfighter) directed a Stephen King script, after liberal rewrites by Larry Cohen and Anders Thomas Jensen. Set in a depressed rural region, Euthanizer follows Veijo, a loner who runs a black market operation euthanizing pets. But unlike the sloppy and uncaring local veterinarian (who charges so much she basically guarantees our Veijo’s business will prosper), Veijo is livid at the owners for abandoning their pets, giving each of his customers a vicious tongue lashing. Soon enough, Veijo’s unyielding moral stance irritates the local neo-Nazis and all hell breaks loose. A denunciation of psychopathic moral rectitude and appalling modern complacency wedded to a whip smart, movie fuelled sensibility, Euthanizer would make Roger Corman beam with pride!