Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Elling (2001)

In 2002 a modest film made in Norway managed to snag an Oscar nomination in the Best Foreign Language Film category.  This film was Elling directed by Petter Næss based on the novel written by Ingvar Ambjørnsen.  It's a simple story of two men, both eccentrics, each mentally disturbed in his own ways, who are given the chance to live normal lives (without any institutional care) as roommates in an Oslo apartment.  Their interactions with each other, a fatherly social worker, and the world around them make for a delightful and heartwarming movie.
The film begins with the protagonist's voice over, explaining his sheltered life as a "momma's boy".  Elling (Per Christian Ellefsen) is a small fidgety spritely fellow who has never been able to leave home without his two greatest enemies tagging along "anxiety and dizziness".  It is after his mother dies that the agoraphobic Elling is brought to live at an institution.  There he rooms with Kjell Bjarne (Sven Nordin) who is his complete opposite in both physical stature and personality.  Naturally, the lumbering, sex-obsessed, dull-witted and kind-hearted Kjell hits it off wonderfully with Elling.  It is no more than ten minutes into the film when the country of Norway dismisses the middle-aged duo from the nationalized institution in order to go make lives for themselves as roommates in Oslo.
Sven Bordin as Kjell Bjarne on left;
Per Christian Ellefsen as Elling on right.
After the train ride we see a terrified Elling pop his head out from under the passenger window and they rendezvous with their social worker, Frank Åsli (Jørgen Langhelle), who shows them the ropes and settles them in at their new place.  Our Lenny and George-like pair immediately take to apartment life, but only apartment life.  While Kjell is somewhat receptive to the idea of going out (for something as little as picking up groceries around the corner) Elling won't have any of it.  Sparks fly when Frank is forced to check on the two because neither would pick up the phone (at Elling's command, of course).  As a result, one of many hilarious sequences takes place: Elling is forced to incur a forceful answering of the phone lesson given by Frank who plays the part of a likeable sort of life coach throughout the film.  It is in scenes like this where Næss achieves just the right balance of comedy and empathy when making light of the characters' vulnerabilities.  Not once as viewers do we feel like the everlasting smiles on our faces throughout the film derive from a malicious outsider sort of humor.  On the contrary, we are at all times rooting for Elling and Kjell, and when they meet adversity in their own ways, we chuckle to ourselves much like the parent of a struggling-to-walk toddler might when their child takes a tumble.
Really, before we know it, the plot begins to take on those twists and turns to which we are accustomed in the cinema.  Kjell meets a female neighbor (Marit Pia Jacobsen) who he becomes serious with.  Elling finds his inner-voice as a poet and befriends a famous intellectual named Alfons Jørgensen (Per Christensen) who he can relate to on an academic level.  In other words their lives develop.  They each have gained a foothold in society.  Mission accomplished.  The film wraps up with a series of comically endearing scenes at Alfons' cabin and an effervescent celebration at a lounge between Elling and Kjell.
And that's it.  What Elling excels at is serving up a story that entertains to the fullest without a single unrealistic premise or event.  By establishing oddball yet palpable characters and allowing the audience to witness their development all while steadily pacing the plot, writers Axel Hellstenius and Larry Stuckey were able to put together a successful adaptive screenplay.  The rest fell on the shoulders of actors Ellefsen and Nordin to deliver, and deliver they do.  Perhaps it was the amped up Americanized moviegoer in me that had my heartrate going at every wind of the corner in the storyline, but neither momentous tragedy nor unexpected achievement ever strike.  It's precisely this dearth of unseemly dramatics that makes for an exceptional viewing experience and even more importantly, imbues celluloid with a soul.
~ Review by Mike Dorfman

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