FILM REVIEW: "Thelma" is affecting and sensual
The romantic art-horror film Thelma enchants and ensnares, much like its unusual genre mashup suggests.
An unmistakable undercurrent of dread permeates Thelma, the plot of which centres on a sheltered and religious young college student, Thelma, experiencing some of life's basic pleasures for the first time: dancing, drinking, flirting with a crush, ignoring phone calls from overbearing parents.
Because of Eili Harboe's expertly steely and brittle performance as Thelma, an actress reminiscent of the great Isabelle Huppert, her tentative steps into a more spontaneous world where she might crack a smile for a second or a few and enjoy herself is as enriching for her as it is for us. We're on this wonderful journey right along with her, hoping, as we do for ourselves, that it'll be something fulfilling and meaningful.
Her burgeoning romance with fellow student Anja (Kaya Wilkins), the catalyst for Thelma's growing desire to be free of her parents, is never bluntly expressed. It lingers on the tip of their tongue, and it is as powerful as it is delicate. This is also due to an equally powerful and delicate score that perfectly services the mood and tone of their scenes. But if their flirtation initially lacks a believable heat befitting two young college students, it's only because such a stuffy upbringing invariably chills the blood to some degree or another. Which of course makes us sympathise with Thelma that much more.
So, the reason for this undercurrent of dread throughout? A strange psychic energy flows through Thelma. One day she'll experience seizures in class, the next she'll somehow make someone disappear. It bewilders and frightens her as much as it does anyone else. Her parents' fire-and-brimstone parenting style is revealed to be a fearful attempt to contain their daughter's dangerous and unpredictable power.
Norwegian director Joachim Trier treats the pulpy paperback grade material with a high degree of seriousness; when Thelma's powers creepily manifest and horrifically warp reality, it is decidedly not the stuff of cool wish-fulfilment or shocking iconography fit to frame on a bedroom wall (a frightened prom queen dipped in pig's blood, anyone?). And Trier sustains an atmosphere of terrible anxiety in its second half, even when the business of the plot gets pretty slow-going – too slow-going, really, to justify its telegraphed ending.
Yet Thelma is a wonderfully composed work, one that involves you at a pace of its own.
4 out of 5 Stars