How soon is too soon after a tragedy to start making movies about it? It’s a question with no defined answer, and one that 22 July director Paul Greengrass is well versed with, having helmed the sublime United 93, five years after 9/11. Seven years on from the horrific attacks by Anders Behring Breivik on Oslo and the Utoya island summer camp, Greengrass delivers the second movie of 2018 about the attacks after the Norwegian-language U-July 22. This English-language effort manages to avoid accusations of ghoulishness and exploitation with a very well-intentioned film about how life goes on after a tragedy.
Where U-July 22 focused in on one camp-goer’s real-time dash for survival on the island, July 22 expands the focus to include the build-up, both the bomb and gun attacks, and then the personal, political, and legal aftermaths. We get to know a few of the survivors, though it’s through the eyes of one, Vilyar Hanssen (Jonas Strand Gravli), that we see most of the film. His recovery, after being shot five times, is the heart of the story, though we do also spend a lot of time with Breivik (Anders Danielsen Lie) himself and his lawyer Geir Lippestad (Jon Oigarden) in the build up to his trial.
Danielsen Lie (nowhere near as creepy looking as the real Breivik) has a tough task and rises to it. It’s not a role with which he or Greengrass is seeking to over-humanise Breivik, but he brings a dark confidence to his performance which suits the delusional white supremacist. The Utoya kids also do good work, and their friendships, which have to be drawn quickly, are convincing. However, the choice to have Norwegian actors speaking English is, by and large, a mistake. Danielsen Lie gets away with it, but for most of the other actors it’s distracting, pulling you out of the reality of the situation.
Given that Greengrass’s trademark style of hyper-involved visuals is in full force in July 22, to have the suspension of disbelief broken like this feels like a major oversight. Then again, to have a Death of Stalin-esque usage of British and American actors using their natural accents would most likely have felt very tasteless in this context, so perhaps it simply is too soon for at least English-language filmmakers to be tackling these events.
To take a stand against Anders Breivik is hardly a political position in and of itself, but Greengrass’s script makes sure to affirm the complicity of the alt-right and their online poison in these 77 murders. Breivik was an isolated man, recruited and radicalised on forums – it was nothing but hateful words on screens, not even spoken in person, that gave him the gall to do what he did. A speech about love and togetherness at the climax of the film is on the nose, but it’s still a nice reminder of not only what people like Breivik lack, but also what will always defeat them.