There’s something about Scandinavian humour that grabs me. I’m not sure what it is about the quiet, gentle portraits of bizarre outsiders that I find so appealing but it works every time. Aki Kaurismaki, and particularly his LENINGRAD COWBOYS, were an obsession of mine, Lars von Trier’s tongue-in-cheek moments in RIGET (THE KINGDOM), tore me between laughter and despair, and Roy Andersson is almost incomparable in his quirky portraits of humanity. Another master of this supremely strange cinematic niche is Bent Hamer, and he’s hitting cinemas again with O’HORTON.
Don’t let the name fool you though, it has nothing to do with Ireland or the Irish. It’s actually about a train driver name Odd Horton. A lifetime of scything through the icy vistas of Norway has turned him into a creature of habit. He lives in an orderly and ordinary fashion, never has anything exceptional happened to him and never has he much minded. But when he is made to retire, he is forced to look at his life anew.
A series of vignettes show Odd’s life unravel in a way that is somehow both painful and hilarious to watch. He is inadvertently locked in a public swimming pool with some young skinny-dippers, he becomes trapped in a sleeping child’s bedroom after being forced to scale a building to get in, he meets an alcoholic depressive with a lust for life and he is driven blindly through the town at night. It’s very whimsical, very silly, but nonetheless absolutely endearing.
The glue that holds these disparate, absurd, and occasionally quite contrived moments together is Odd himself. Veteran actor Baard Owe puts in a performance that is as subtle as you’d expect from a Bent Hamer film, but encapsulates all that is loveable about this man who represents so much of the world that is slowly dying way. He is calm in a crisis, resolute in doing what needs to be done, he is practical, helpful and never able to do wrong to his fellow man. All of these attributes flow from the screen through imperceptible actions and expressions whose overall impact is impressive.
For all the penetrative qualities of this apparently insubstantial story, it does have its flaws. The conflict between the profound implications of the events on Odd really do strain against the playful absurdity of the world Bent Hamer has created: he sometimes shies away from the pain at times, and exaggerates the amusing in ways that chip away at the strength of the story as a whole. Nonetheless, it is a film that is constantly enjoyable. It entertains from start to finish and tells a story that is not just fun but in its inimitably gentle way has something to teach us all as well.
O’HORTEN was released in the UK on the 8th of May.
This article was first posted on May 13, 2009