Thursday, May 21, 2009

Odd Norwegian

Odd is fairly common Norwegian name, but the English meaning is also fairly well known in Norway. That made it perfect for the rather aloof protagonist of Bent Hamer’s O’Horten (trailer here), Norway’s 2008 submission for the Best Foreign Language Academy Award, which opens in New York this Friday.

Odd Horten is a man you can set your watch by. For nearly forty years, he kept Norway’s trains running on time and right as rain. His entire life has been strictly regimented, getting from point A to point B within the allotted period of time. However, Horten’s mandatory retirement is fast approaching, forcing him to look forward to a new life free of the comforting structure of timetables and predetermined destinations. It is a reality he is forced to confront a day early when, through a strange set of circumstances, he does the unthinkable. He misses his train.

Out of the engineer’s seat for the first time, Horten proceeds to encounter every Norwegian more idiosyncratic than himself. There is indeed a fair amount of quirkiness in O’Horten, but it is tempered by its cool Scandinavian reserve that makes perfect sense when considered against the backdrop of frozen vistas and empty winter streets, which make up Horten’s world. Horten’s spit-polished uniform and stiff demeanor suggest a military bearing. Yet, he is a gentle soul, who proves to be a strong rooting interest.

Bard Owe’s restrained performance gives just the right hint of vulnerability beneath Horton’s glacial reserve, elevating O’Horten above many recent similar European comedies jam-packed with the requisite colorful characters. Hamer’s direction is patient to a fault, at times letting the pace flag. However, he and cinematographer John Christian Rosenlund bring a dramatic visual flair to the film, capitalizing on the striking winter landscapes seen from the windshield of Horten’s train. John Erik Kaada’s electronic score also nicely matches the cool visual tones of the film.

While most viewers will have a pretty good idea where O’Horten is headed, Owe’s engineer is such a sympathetic figure the understated payoff is ultimately quite satisfying. Clearly, O’Horten does not break much new ground, but it is immensely likable film thanks to the quiet charm of its lead. It opens in New York tomorrow (5/22) at the Quad.