Starring: Andrea Berntzen, Aleksander Holmen, Brede Fristad
Director: Erik Poppe
Running Time: 93 mins
U – July 22 (Utøya – 22. juli) is a Norwegian film about the story of a teenage girl who struggles to survive as her summer camp comes under attack during the terrorist attacks of July 2011.
The attacks in Norway in 2011 were a devastating series of events, and although the characters depicted in this story are fictional, they go a long way to portraying the unimaginable horrors that hundreds went through when the island of Utøya came under attack. With ingenious direction, a fascinating screenplay, and a deeply compelling lead performance, U – July 22 proves a terrifying and harrowing watch, but one with such depth and power that you won’t be able to take your eyes away for a second.
There’s so much that makes this film such a stunning watch, but what I was most impressed by from the start was its commitment to keeping you fully in the moment, experiencing the confusion and sheer terror with the characters as they find themselves stuck on an island with a madman shooting at will somewhere off in the distance. As such, there’s not much in the way of a wider context (apart from a brief prologue explaining the other attack in Oslo), but that’s something that makes the film even more engrossing, as you’re left as much in the dark as the people on screen, desperately clamouring for any sign of hope to hold onto.
What’s even more striking about the film is the way it keeps itself fully focused on the people who came under attack. While its premise may have the opportunity for some horrible violence and terror, the real power comes from the connection that you feel with the characters, particularly with young Kaja, portrayed astonishingly by Andrea Berntzen.
In that, while parts of the film focus on the desperate run for survival in the forests of Utøya Island, its most striking and memorable moments come in the form of those deeply reflective sequences where characters are hiding out in silence behind whatever they can. Although I will say that the film doesn’t quite deliver a rapid, run-for-your-life pace right from the off, it becomes apparent throughout that the real heart is in the reflection of its main characters as they fear for their lives, something that I was absolutely stunned by.
Berntzen’s performance is astonishing throughout, as she establishes her character within seconds as a brave and caring individual, and when she finds herself running to survive, I felt 100% behind everything she does, both protecting her own life as well as helping others, and desperately searching for her sister.
Although it may seem like somewhat of a simplistic comparison, the film’s story is similar to Battle Royale. Now, each of the films’ intentions are completely different, but what U – July 22 does so well is create that desperate and harrowing sense of fear that danger is lurking around every corner, much like Battle Royale, but go one step further, to give you those moments of quiet and deep reflection, bringing you closer and closer to the characters while allowing you to think of what it would be like to really be in such a horrible situation.
This film isn’t for the faint-hearted, but it’s a deeply powerful and affecting portrayal of what happened during the terrorist attacks in 2011, and rather than simply showing things as a brutal and violent massacre, it lends deserved attention and focus to the stories of those who found themselves completely innocent victims, proving an astonishingly emotional watch as well as simply terrifying.
But beyond the story, huge credit has to go to how this film is shot and put together, because it forms a large part of what makes it so easy to connect with the characters on screen. Above all, it’s a one-take masterpiece, with the entire film playing out in just one camera shot (similar to the likes of Birdman and Russian Ark). Here, the one-take style fits absolutely perfectly, as we follow Kaja through every second of desperation as she tries to navigate her way to safety, never missing a beat of how she feels.
Therefore, by spending every single second of the film with her, it’s impossible not to form such a deep connection, to the point where it would be truly devastating to have her taken away from you, fearing for her life and willing her to survive just as much as she is herself.
Some say that many one-take films are simply gimmicks, but that’s definitely not the case with U – July 22. Although there are times when the camera itself gets a little out of hand – losing sight of our main character and becoming a little personified itself – the raw, gritty nature of following every moment of this struggle for survival in such terrifying conditions, ranging from the shaky handheld footage as we dash through the forest, or the dirty, claustrophobic visuals as we see Kaja hide behind trees and rocks; all of it makes the film more and more immersive, and as such more and more harrowing to experience.
The way that the camera is used here is truly exceptional, with such dynamic and rapid-paced camerawork throughout. Director Erik Poppe deserves immense credit for stringing it all together so seamlessly, the praise warranted for cinematographer Martin Otterbeck’s ingenuity is endless, and even the cameraworkers themselves deserve a mention for what is a very physical and exhausting, yet thoroughly effective, performance behind the lens.
Overall, I was hugely impressed with U – July 22. A deeply affecting film that gives an emotional and tender depiction of what the victims of the terrorist attacks went through, furthered by a stunning lead performance from Andrea Berntzen, exceptional camerawork throughout, an endlessly engrossing screenplay, and stunning directing that ties it all together in one incredibly powerful hour and a half, and that’s why I’m giving it an 8.3.