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New Release Review - PHOENIX

phoenix 2019 film review
A teenager conceals her mother's suicide when her estranged father pays a visit.

Review by Eric Hillis

Directed by: Camilla Strøm Henriksen

Starring: Ylva Bjørkaas Thedin, Sverrir Gudnason, Maria Bonnevie, Casper Falck-Løvås, Kjersti Sandal

phoenix 2019 film poster


In Raymond Carver's short story 'So Much Water So Close to Home', a group of friends on a fishing trip discover the recently deceased corpse of a young woman floating in the river. Coming to the grimly practical conclusion that they can't help the dead woman at this point, the friends decide to see out their fishing weekend and report their grisly find on the way home. If the premise sounds familiar it's because it's been adapted twice for the screen, initially as one of the subplots of Robert Altman's Short Cuts and later as Ray Lawrence's Australian drama Jindabyne. Its influence can also be seen in Tim Hunter's River's Edge, in which a group of teenagers have a similarly impartial reaction to the discovery of their friend's corpse, and Carver's story now has a Scandinavian cousin of sorts in Norwegian writer/director Camilla Strøm Henriksen's feature debut Phoenix.

Making a striking acting debut is Ylva Bjørkaas Thedin as 13-year-old Jill, who despite her young age has been left to run her household thanks to her mother Astrid's (Maria Bonnevie) increasingly fragile mental condition. With Astrid spending most of her time in bed, the curtains closed to keep her sheltered from a world she has become reluctant to interact with, it's left to Jill to take care of her young brother Bo (Casper Falck-Løvås).

phoenix 2019 film review

Things begin to look up when Jill receives two pieces of potentially good news. A family friend has arranged an interview for Astrid for a job at a local gallery, and with her work as an artist so respected, it seems she's a shoo-in for the position. Secondly, Jill's estranged father, jazz musician Nils (Sverrir Gudnason), is coming to town at the weekend for a gig that coincides with Jill's 14th birthday.

[ READ MORE: New Release Review - Scarborough ]

The day of her mother's interview, Jill returns home to make a ghastly discovery, finding her mother's corpse hanging from a rope in the small basement room where they leave clothes to dry. Rather than breaking down and panicking as most teenage girls might, Jill calmly locks the door and sets about pretending all is well. In front of her brother she fakes receiving a phone call from their mother, telling Bo his mom is off with a male companion, not an uncommon scenario.

phoenix 2019 film review

Jill's cold reaction is shocking, but at the same time it's understandable. After all, her childhood has been stolen by having to look after her mother, and with her father's impending arrival she believes she can enjoy a rare reprieve from her duties. A weekend in the company of the father she naively idolises (we quickly learn he's not going to win any father of the year awards) isn't something Jill is willing to give up, despite the circumstances.

[ READ MORE: New Release Review - Rojo ]

With its catalogue of misery and parental neglect, Phoenix might be the most upsetting movie you'll see all year. What makes it all the more tragic is that Astrid and Niles' narcissistic nature seems to have transferred to their daughter, who like her parents, isn't willing to face situations head on. Perhaps Strøm Henriksen's film is an indictment of how collectively as Northern Europeans we have a notorious habit of burying our heads in the sand (or the bottle) rather than directly facing the more difficult aspects of life, family and relationships.

phoenix 2019 film review

2019 has proven quite the year for memorable turns from Scandinavian actresses, with Victoria Carmen Sonne (Holiday), Halldóra Geirharðsdóttir (Woman at War) and Pia Tjelta (Blind Spot) delivering performances that should be in contention for any end of year awards. In her first ever screen appearance, Bjørkaas Thedin is commanding, her portrayal of a child forced to contend with the duties of adulthood truly affecting and heart-breaking. If it's possible to exit a movie worried about the well-being of a fictional character, Jill's uncertain future will leave you haunted.

Phoenix is in UK/ROI cinemas September 13th.


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