“Misery Harbour” begins like “Knife in the Water” and ends up kind of like “The Talented Mr. Ripley.” It follows a young man from Denmark named Espen, an aspiring writer who doesn’t have to worry about getting into trouble, because trouble stalks after him. We meet him first in 1932 Norway where he’s a talented, but struggling writer, recounting his past and stymied by a razor sharp critic who asks too many questions.
“Misery Harbour” is the story of Espen’s life, told mainly in flashbacks, beginning with his miserable adolescence in the creepy, dank Danish town of Jante. There, Espen’s only light of salvation is his thirst for education and the joy he feels when he puts his thoughts down on paper, but his future is dim. Like all the others, he seems destined to spend a hellish existence working in the town’s molten ironworks. What to do? Espen runs away and goes to sea.
Before he leaves, we move back to the present and get an insight into the demons that lurk inside Espen, when the town critic and Espen’s literary rival, Johan(Bjorn Floberg), asks Espen to fully explain the morbid nature of his writings. Espen has a theory that any man has the capacity to kill if he’s provoked enough. Espen is too scared to answer and he’s so panicked he has to flee which draws the attention of his friend Jenny(Anneke von der Lippe). We get the strange feeling that Espen is hiding some murderous secrets of his own. Either that or he’s the greatest writer who ever lived.
The film flashes back to 1915, and in the best scenes in the film, we follow Espen’s ill fated voyage to Newfoundland where he runs into a charming Irish sailor named Wakefield(Stuart Graham). Their journey starts out as a rousing adventure but quickly turns to dread and misery. There’s deep terror on these high seas.
Wakefield frames Espen for illegal smuggling which causes Espen to be punished mercilessly by the evil captain who even takes to lashing him. Espen is beaten endlessly until he decides to jump ship just short of Newfoundland. He lands into the utopian looking fishing village of Misery Harbour. Once again, Espen has run away.
Just when it seems Espen can relax in this nice place, guess who shows up? Wakefield. He turns up looking for work and even takes an interest in the girl Espen likes. Enraged, Espen murders Wakefield, or did he? Is it just part of a story? Jenny, Espen’s friend, has her suspicions and so does Espen’s literary rival Johan, the one who questioned Espen about his murder theory. What’s the truth? Do we ever remember the truth?
Acclaimed director Nils Gaup does a great job of maintaining taut suspense throughout, constantly suggesting impending danger and mystery, although I suppose it’s no accident that places like Denmark, Netherlands and Norway, seem to provide some of the creepiest and eerily suggestive(“Breaking the Waves”, “Insomnia”, “The Vanishing”) settings for films like this. Maybe there’s something in the water?
As with “Usual Suspects”, Gaup’s film gives us credit for being intelligent enough to figure out what might be real and what might be Espen’s fantasy. Wakefield’s reappearance, for instance, seems really fantastical, deliberately so I think.
As for Espen, wonderfully played by Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, rarely has there been a film character so dark who completely engenders the audiences sympathy. Deep down, all Espen wants is to be left alone with his writing, but to do so is to be alone with his thoughts, and for Espen, that’s a prison too horrible to imagine.