“You don’t have to love me just because I’m dying. But I need to know that you’ll help me.”
A diagnosis of terminal cancer inevitably brings upheaval and stress into any family. Hope, Norway’s official Oscar Submission for Best International Feature Film (it made the shortlist, but wasn’t nominated), is an intimate and intense look at the dynamics within a family, and especially between spouses in such a troubling time.
Anja (Andrea Bræin Hovig) and Tomas (Stellan Skarsgård) have been together for many years. They have three children together as well as three from Tomas’s first marriage. They have built very separate lives through the years, but have managed to stay together (although not married). A few days before Christmas, Anja learns that she has a brain tumor, likely a metastasis from her earlier lung cancer. Such tumors are invariably fatal.
The film follows Anja and her family through a very difficult eleven day period. They try to keep the diagnosis secret through the holiday, but with Anja’s reaction to the steroids she’s been put on, it becomes necessary to reveal the truth. She is struggling with thoughts of mortality, but also with concern for her children, especially her teenage daughter. Tomas and Anja also must deal with questions within their relationship and how their lives have evolved over the years. All the while they must deal with holidays with friends and with various medical appointments to determine any steps to be taken if there is to be any hope of survival.
At the very beginning of the film is a note that says. “This is my story as I remember it.” The film is based on director Maria Sødahl’s experience of getting such a diagnosis. (Obviously, she recovered.) That is what makes the film such an intimate portrayal of a very trying time in her life. As Anja struggles through such tumultuous times, trying to deal with holidays, family, drugs side effects, and the frustrations of even a good medical system, we can see something of the reality Sødahl lived.
The setting of the Christmas/New Year holidays is interesting because those are days we associate with hope—whether it involves Christmas presents or the dawning of a new year. But for Anja and Tomas, much of what they are seeing is hopelessness. Doctor after doctor tells them there is no hope—only short-term remedies.
That makes the film’s title stand out. This is a film in which hope, while it seems so elusive, is central to the characters’ lives. Hope, as it plays out in the film, is not just about a possible medical outcome. It applies to the future of Tomas’s and Anja’s children. But the real focus of hope that we see here is on healing the rift in the relationship between Tomas and Anja that has grown through years of distraction and routine. If they have only a little time left together, will it be a time of love or only struggle?
The film leaves all its questions unresolved, and in so doing it challenges us to consider our own level of hope.
Hope is available in theaters and through virtual cinema.
Photos courtesy of KimStim Films.