Neil Young’s Film Lounge – Aberdeen

Published on: March 23rd, 2004

Aberdeen

6/10

UK/Norway 2000
dir. Hans Petter Molland
scr. Molland, Kristin Amundsen
cin. Philip Ogaard
stars Stellan Skarsgard, Lena Headey, Ian Hart
113 minutes

Stellan Skarsgard as a hard-drinking oil-rigger; main female role is a headstrong, somewhat unstable young Scot, played by an English actress; director is Scandinavian, but majority of film takes place in Scotland : sound familiar? Hans Petter Molland clearly isn’t afraid of generating a Breaking The Waves vibe, but who can blame him for casting Skarsgard in such a typical ‘Stellan Skarsgard’ role, such is the extent to which the actor has become such a familiar presence in arthouses (TimeCode, Insomnia) and multiplexes (Deep Blue Sea, Good Will Hunting, Ronin) since his Waves breakthough three years ago.

But the comparisons with Von Trier’s film only go so far. The Dane is, on current evidence, a more talented director than the Norwegian, if only in that his films, for all their faults, are so strongly cinematic – they feel like they have to be films, whereas Aberdeen would arguably be most at home on a TV screen. I find it very hard to take Von Trier seriously as a thinker, but at least he’s able to translate his thoughts, however sophomoric or muddy they may be, into coherent images and sequences, and they have a power that goes beyond the translation of scripted words and instructions into celluloid images.

With Molland, it’s more a matter of providing a frame in which the film’s real talent – the actors – can explore their characters. And on those terms. Aberdeen must be counted as a success. After only a few scenes I felt as though I knew these people on the screen – throughout the film, and afterwards, I had no trouble remembering their names, which is a handy way of measuring whether the scriptwriters and actors have been doing their job well.

Kaisa (Headey) is a strident, hedonistic, twentysomething businesswoman working in London. Her mother Helen (Charlotte Rampling) calls from hospital in Aberdeen where she’s been diagnosed with terminal cancer. She wants to see her estranged husband Tomas (Skarsgard) before she dies, and dispatches Kaisa to Norway to track him down and bring him back. Kaisa finds Tomas has become an alcoholic wreck whose airport antics cause the pair to be banned from the skies. At which point Aberdeen settles into its real, somewhat anachronistic groove – it becomes a road movie, as Kaisa and Tomas make their way to Aberdeen via Harwich, London, Mansfield and Glasgow, picking up laconic Yorkshire trucker Clive (Hart) along the way.

Geography is crucial once a director has decided to embark on a road movie – as Wim Wenders noted, you operate less from a script outline than from an itinerary, and it’s vital to have a sense of movement from place to place. Which makes Aberdeen a very odd entry into the genre. Apart from the Norwegian scenes, the whole of the rest of the film was, for budgetary reasons, shot in and around Glasgow – and that includes the sequences set in the title city of Aberdeen. As with the Skarsgard casting and the resulting Waves echoes, it’s hard to criticise Molland for his genial film’s geographical shortcomings. While the director must have no idea what Mansfield actually looks like, there’s only one moment when his enforced tactic causes confusion: we see Tomas and Kaisa on the Harwich ferry, then in a single cut we’re in Glasgow – a particularly recognisable corner of Glasgow at that. It’s only later that we realise we were supposed to pretend it was, in fact, London.

A charitable response would be to compare Aberdeen with Godard’s Alphaville, in which intergalactic space travel was represented by deadpan shots of characters driving around the Paris priphrique at night: Aberdeen thus becomes less a granite city on a coast, that a state of mind – the end of the journey, the end of the line, the terminus, death. For Aberdeen is as much about emotional and internal journeys as it is about the negotiation of Britain’s motorways. It’s a firmly character-based piece in which the relationships between Tomas, Kaisa and Clive are the real focus.

This central trio present great opportunities for the actors, and it’s really their movie. All three achieve subtleties and layerings that go far beyond the stereotypes implied by plot synopsis: alcoholic dad, stroppy daughter, sensitive bloke. It’s hard to imagine anyone other than Skarsgard as Tomas – his transition from shambling, fuzzy, sweaty wreck to clean-shaven, smart-suited father/husband is careful, tentative (the scene where he orders iced water at a bar well-stocked with whiskies is the film’s highlight) and refreshingly free of actorly mannerism. But, as with Waves, he’s perhaps unlikely to receive the credit his efforts deserve, such is the ferocity with which Headey (from Yorkshire) grabs her showcase role. Coltish, angular, sensual, bold, with wounded eyes staring out from a boyishly pretty face, her Kaisa barrels the movie along with jagged bursts of energy, taking no prisoners in the boardroom, in the bedroom or on the street. Alongside such a powerhouse, Hart characteristically and wisely elects to underplay his role, emerging as the film’s one beacon of stability and common sense.

Skarsgard, Headey and Hart are never less than totally convincing even when, in the final scenes, the shifts in their relationships become more conventional and predictable – it’s just a bit too neat for the in-control Kaisa to crumble just as Tomas is sobering up and finally taking responsibility for himself. At this stage Molland’s limitations as scriptwriter and director become distractingly apparent. There’s a sudden and unwelcome shift to melodrama involving the police and a Class A drug that leads to a final scene set in a prison, in which Molland’s camera moves and lighting come straight from a very dog-eared Hollywood textbook. This section feels as though it’s strayed in from another film altogether, and it’s all the more surprising given the conscientious approach taken up to this point.

In fact, Molland is, if anything, rather too conscientious – his film, while it could be shorter, could also be a lot looser. I’m not suggesting he follows the dogme route of handheld cameras and the like, but Aberdeen suggests he’s scared to experiment and going with the flow, instead preferring to leave such risky volatility to his performers. This means that, while I’ll be lukewarm about seeing Molland’s next film, Skarsgard and Headey are definitely names to watch.

by Neil Young