The Movie Waffler New Release Review - BIRTHDAY GIRL | The Movie Waffler

New Release Review - BIRTHDAY GIRL

Birthday Girl review
When her daughter is sexually assaulted on a cruise ship, a mother tries to find the man responsible.

Review by Eric Hillis

Directed by: Michael Noer

Starring: Trine Dyrholm, Flora Ofelia Hofmann Lindahl, Herman Tømmeraas, Maja Ida Thiele

Birthday Girl poster

It's difficult to imagine a music festival, football match or any other large gathering being allowed to go ahead without some sort of a police presence. The one great anomaly is the cruise ship. Some of these vessels boast passenger rosters greater in number than the population of a small town, and yet all these thousands of people are thrown together for weeks at a time with no law enforcement present. There's a famous saying, "What happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas," but if you commit a crime in Vegas you'll most likely be punished. What happens on a cruise ship often stays on that ship, as international waters make it impossible for any police force to get immediately involved, and the onboard security have no real powers to deal with serious crimes.

Given they're filled with thousands of drunken revellers, it's no surprise that the most commonly reported crime on cruise ships is sexual assault. With Birthday Girl, director Michael Noer and his co-writer Jesper Fink have fashioned a tense thriller from this specific scenario.

Birthday Girl review

Feeling guilty for being absent through most of her daughter Cille's (Flora Ofelia Hofmann Lindahl) young life, fortysomething divorcee Nanna (Trine Dyrholm) splashes out on a cruise from Miami to Denmark to celebrate Cille's 18th birthday, bringing Cille's best friend Lea (Maja Ida Thiele) along for the trip. There's a clear tension between the estranged mother and daughter, who have little in common. Cille is quiet and reserved, while her mom likes to get drunk and parade around in push-up bras and painted nails. When Nanna presents her daughter with a gift of a photo album, Cille coldly remarks how she's a young child in all of their photos together.

Despite Cille and Lea being underage by the cruise ship's rules, Nanna plies them with alcohol. As the trio get drunk and hit the dance floor, Nanna and Cille's troubles seem to temporarily subside. But in getting her daughter drunk, Nanna has made her vulnerable, and in the middle of the night she finds an unconscious Cille lying asleep in the upper decks, her panties on the floor next to her.

Thus begins a gruelling look at what women face when reporting a sexual assault, made worse by the absence of any real authorities onboard. Cille is coldly examined by the ship's only doctor, a male, and the mother and daughter are repeatedly condescended to by the security team. As it becomes apparent the ship is more interested in avoiding bad PR than in finding her daughter's attacker, Nanna decides to take the law into her own hands.

Birthday Girl review

Dyrholm's Nanna makes for an unconventional but compelling thriller protagonist. She's completely out of her depth in this situation and ill-equipped to conduct any sort of rational investigation. Like the protagonist of the recent German thriller The Teachers' Lounge, Nanna's attempts to do the right thing often backfire as her lack of emotional distance from the case makes her the worst sort of detective. We're forced to watch through our fingers as she engages in misjudged acts that we know will only make the situation worse, like using a karaoke microphone to publicly call out the young man (Herman Tømmeraas) she has decided is her daughter's attacker, despite somewhat flimsy evidence.

What's so daring about Birthday Girl is how it refuses to make Nanna an easily digestible heroine. Quite the contrary; Nanna is something of a sociopathic trainwreck, and it's easy to understand her daughter's hostility. When it becomes clear that Cille has been sexually assaulted, rather than comfort her daughter, Nanna's first act is to attempt to coax her into lying about having been given alcohol by her mother. Nanna is so consumed by a desire for justice that she neglects her child to the point that it seems Cille would rather drop the charges than see her mother continually make the situation more harrowing.

Birthday Girl review

There's also an undercurrent of classism and racism to Nanna that's never verbalised but made clear through body language and the disdain she displays towards the ship's non-white crew. The image of a young Asian cook coming close to tears as she's man-handled by the towering Viking figure of Nanna is striking. You rarely see it expressed in films, but there's a certain type of white person who treats black people with a grudging respect while being openly contemptuous of Asians, and Nanna falls right into that category. Her politeness towards the Caribbean members of the security crew is contrasted starkly with how she treats the ship's Asian labourers. When Nanna produces a replica Danish flag from her handbag and mounts it in her cabin like a colonial conqueror, it's a delicious visual pun, a literal red flag that hints at her narrow-mindedness. To borrow the annoyingly reductive parlance of social media, Nanna is a Karen. You get the feeling that if her daughter hadn't been violated, Nanna would find some other reason to demand to see the captain. She's the second worst person on the ship, but as her mission is to find the worst person, we're fully behind her.

Birthday Girl is exactly the sort of European movie that would have gotten a Hollywood remake in the past. At every turn you can see where a literal-minded Hollywood screenwriter might go wrong. You can't imagine a Hollywood movie would dare to give us such a morally complex female lead, and if it did tackle the film's unspoken themes of class and race, it would likely do so in the most didactic manner imaginable, making sure through crude dialogue that nothing goes over the viewer's head. Thankfully the Danes still know how to pull off this sort of storytelling. Birthday Girl engages in the nuanced character building of great European cinema while also delivering the sort of adult-oriented thrills that were once Hollywood's stock in trade.

Birthday Girl
 is on UK/ROI VOD from June 17th.

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