After a routine checkup, Anja (Andrea Braein Hovig) finds out that her cancer has returned and in the worst possible way. It’s settled in her brain—having metastasized from her lungs—and will almost certainly kill her. Joined by her husband, Tomas (Stellan Skarsgard), she receives the news in one of those small, impersonal, quietly depressing hospital rooms and by that steady, well-rehearsed doctor voice.
But Maria Sodahl’s Hope isn’t about following the spark as it makes its way down the fuse to the stick of dynamite. Death, for once in its life, isn’t the most interesting guy in the room. The movie is about life, but, specifically, the life of a dying person. When the doctor says Anja has maybe three months left, it isn’t three months grafted from her happy-go-lucky twenties. It’s three months of medication to combat the effects of another medication, which itself there to combat the effects of the original medication. Her body and mind get caught in the chemical crossfire. She must also break the news to her family, which means her final three months will be spent looking not at the faces she’s always known and found comfort in, but faces full of sadness and pity. When friends and neighbors find out, they apologize—speaking on behalf of cancer, I guess—and offer other hollow niceties, but all it does is isolate Anja further as a local oddity. Look, ma, a real-life dying person.
“…her cancer has returned, and in the worst possible way…and will almost certainly kill her.”
By shunning any kind of countdown device, Sodahl plays a more dangerous game, like throwing away that big stick on a tightrope and walking the rest of the way backward, just because you know you can. It becomes a movie about living out a brief, theoretical window of time that no one prepares you for and almost doesn’t make sense. It’s a life where hope is either an essential motivator or an anvil tied to your ankle, and no way of knowing which. These difficult, underexplored ideas and feelings translate so well because Sodahl doesn’t package them in an inspirational, triumph-of-the-human-spirit story or a masochistic, self-absorbed dread-fest. The movie avoids the pull of extremes and walks into the unknown with its characters.
You can see it best in the marriage between Anja and Tomas. When the movie starts, their marriage isn’t exactly loveless, perhaps, but it’s stagnant and broken into the point of breaking. Anja’s diagnosis doesn’t immediately bring them back together, either. That would be too easy and only feasible in a greeting card world. Instead, there’s a lot of stumbling into each other. Tomas doesn’t know what Anja wants. Anja doesn’t know what Anja wants. Nobody knows anything for sure. Sometimes, things work out, just as mysteriously and suddenly as things originally went wrong, and they’re each other’s greatest asset again. The point is that there are no straight lines in the movie. Even when some skeletons leave their respective closets, things don’t play out in the usual way. Bitterness and jealousy simply dissolve into whatever peculiar brand of love that Anja and Tomas share. It’s too potent and complex to carry anything as simple as jealousy.
There’s much to like about Hope, but it’s the honesty I liked best. It’s not a naked, brutally realistic honesty, as the recent Amour. It has more to do with those final three months and how nobody knows what to do with them. Anja looks to Tomas for answers, Tomas looks to Anja, and doctors refer them to other doctors. It’s almost funny. One tapdancing tumor and we might have ourselves a comedy.
Hope screened at the 2019 Toronto International Film Festival.
"…about life, but, specifically, the life of a dying person."