Review: Narvik



Fight for your rights.

April 1940: Residents of the strategically vital town of Narvik, Norway, prepare to be caught in a war as tensions rise with Nazi Germany and the United Kingdom begins efforts to pre-emptively get in the way. Soldier Gunnar (Carl Martin Eggsbø) goes into action as his unit prepares to sabotage a vital railway bridge, while his wife Ingrid (Kristine Hartgen) does whatever she has to in order to protect her family from the threat of German occupation and British artillery.

Narvik is a film that makes me think about war movies, and specifically localised war movies. You know what I mean: every country has its own story, and there are probably loads of filmmakers in those countries who want to the chance to tell that big, brash, loud story. Hell, look at Ireland and something like The Siege Of Jadotville as a classic example, or how about The King’s Choice for Norway. The problem is that the available means to things like the Irish filmmaking industry, or in this case the Norwegian filmmaking industry, aren’t there to do the story as much justice as it needs in terms of spectacle. Lacking those means, directors and writers – Erik Skjoldbjærg, best known as the writer of Occupied, fills both roles here – have to resort to something else.

In the case of Narvik this is done in the effort to split the story of the Battle of Narvik into two different narratives. One is what you would expect: a young Norwegian soldier facing fearful odds, up against the Nazi war machine with lots of daring do to be accomplished. The other is the much more drawn back affair, as we follow that young soldier’s wife trying to make her way under German occupation, in a succession of dingy locations. Some of this works, and some of it does not. But it is inevitable when you look at projects like this I suppose.

So what works: I think this is a decent, if under-funded, depiction of a largely forgotten chapter of the Second World War, one where British, Norwegian, French and Polish troops briefly found themselves fighting side-by-side against the Germans (the mix of languages at times reminded me of Pilgrimage actually); Eggsbø is quite good in the lead role of Gunnar, a young man who plainly does not want to be a war hero, but does what he feels he has to; the depiction of the awkward choices people have to make under occupation is thoughtful and subtle, whether it is a small compliance at gunpoint or a more large-scale betrayal of allies in dire circumstances.

What doesn’t work: the general cheapness on the production side with Narvik suffering from a lack of sets and appropriate lighting; the same for the few combat sequences, which in their limitations are unable to truly capture the magnitude of what was occurring at Narvik in that time; a certain kind of casual string-pulling in the unfolding story, with a focus on dead relatives and sick children that crosses the line from intense realism is almost eye-roll worthy; and a rushed and unsatisfying conclusion, where the two narratives intertwine and characters reckon with their choices for about two minutes before resorting to the status quo.

The key flaw however is that Narvik doesn’t really know what it wants to say about war. This may be intentional: after all it is a very complex topic, and a nuanced view where the moral imperative of defending your home against outside invasion – hardly a niche topic nowadays – comes up hard against the necessity of defending your loved ones from unnecessary harm is not illegitimate. But on the other hand I think I would have preferred if Narvik had made the call one way or another. The narrative is too split up and a little tortured to really go at the idea with that two-pronged view, like, say, Anthropoid did in a different World War II environment, and might have been better served with a bit more in the way of focus: by the end of Narvik you are left distinctly unclear about whether the production is saying that the titular town is worth fighting for or isn’t. A film purely about Ingrid might have been much more thematically interesting and rich, but when you are cutting away to a routine war story every five minutes that chance is lost.

In the end Narvik is likely to really only make a serious splash in the country where it is set, lacking the sense of spectacle to do so anywhere else. To some degree it feels like it might have been better off in a serialised form, or given the limitations of set as a stage show of some description. As a film it too frequently inhabits the worst of all worlds: limited in production, with an unclear thesis as it pertains to the subject of war, and not helped by a certain sense of needless soap-opera in some of its plot choices. It’s not a bad effort by any means, but even within Norwegian cinema, a film like The King’s Choice does a better job with the intricacies of this period. Not recommended.

(All images are copyright of Netflix).

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