Had anyone been surveyed, I feel it’s safe to assume that they would have been fine with zero films about the incomprehensible horrors of July 22 2011 in Norway. Yet, in one of the weirder specific zeitgeists in recent cinematic memory, we’ve had two within two weeks of one another. After the English-language 22 July took on the Utoya summer camp massacre itself as well as a wide scope of political and emotional fallout, the Norwegian Utoya – 22 July tightens the focus. Zooming in on one camper’s desperate run for survival, Erik Poppe’s take on the tragedy is a real-time, one take horror movie.
Not based specifically on any one camper’s story, Utoya centres on the amalgam character of Kaja (Andrea Berntzen) as she hides from the carnage and attempts to find her missing younger sister. The attack lasted 71 minutes, and the audience is subjected to every last second of terror. As a study of chaos and fear, Utoya is successfully upsetting, but also tripped up by its central conceit, with long stretches of hiding out in relative silence sapping tension. It’s clearly not Poppe’s aim to make a ‘cinematic’ film here, but his intensity can’t be sustained throughout.
Martin Otterbeck’s cinematography is impressively agile and athletic, and his camera essentially becomes an in-universe character. It ducks for cover and only peeks out in the brief moments when the shooting is clearly out of range. Admirably avoiding ghoulishness, gore is kept to a minimum and Anders Breivik, so prevalent in Paul Greengrass’s take on the story, is glimpsed but once, his presence only announced by offscreen gunshots. With such ‘good taste’ though, the downtime has you wondering about the moral necessity of the film itself, and this more academic question eventually becomes inextricably tangled up with the emotional response to what’s on screen.
Utoya does have, I feel, one extraordinary sequence that ends up more than justifying its existence. Kaja encounters a critically wounded girl (Solveig Koloen Birkeland) and hides with her as the life very slowly leaves her body. It’s a shocking, almost unwatchable scene that pulls no punches in its depiction of panicky and violent premature death, filled with tiny gestures of kindness, that elevates the whole film. Suddenly, the rather sloppy character work falls away in a moment that is both universally human and utterly, terrifyingly alien, performed brilliantly by two astonishing first-time actors.