Friday, February 01, 2019

Sundance ’19: Sonja—the White Swan

If you visit Sun Valley, you can easily enjoy vintage performances from Sonja Henie, Glenn Miller, Dorothy Dandridge, and the Nicholas Brothers, because the 1941 Hollywood musical Sun Valley Serenade plays 24-hours on a local resort TV station. Unfortunately, you might not want to see that much of Henie after watching her new bio-pic. There is nothing flattering about the portrait of Henie that emerges in Anne Sewitsky’s Sonja: The White Swan, which screens during the 2019 Sundance Film Festival.

Henie was a record-breaking world and Olympic champion, who certainly never lacked for confidence. She basically talked and skated her way into a contract at 20th Century Fox and then proceeded to save the cash-strapped studio with her rom-com hits. She was the Ethel Merman of frozen water, but she wasn’t very nice to be around.

According to Mette Marit Bølstad & Andrea Markusson’s screenplay, the early years in Hollywood are a non-stop party for Henie, but career setbacks, family squabbles, and financial problems make the 1950s much less fun. However, in just about every instance, Henie is to blame.

Rarely has a film ever shown such unbridled hostility to its subject. As portrayed in White Swan, Henie is not merely a shallow, selfish, self-centered prima donna. She is also a Nazi-namedropper, who projects an unsettling Lolita-esque sexual persona, while carrying on a decidedly unhealthy love-hate relationship with her brother Leif. Arguably, the film lets her off somewhat easy for the way she sweet talked Goebbels into approving German distribution for her films. On the other hand, in White Swan she never seems to understand why her connection to the National Socialists is problematic, whereas in real-life she appeared in the anti-Nazi film Everything Happens at Night and supported the American war effort and the “Little Norway” military training base for Norwegian refugees, so maybe she wasn’t as bad as the film suggests.

Regardless, Ine Marie Wilmann’s lead performance is just a jaw-dropping spectacle of hot mess antics and meltdowns. She makes Henie look like an absolutely horrible person, but her commitment is beyond question. She goes all-in, all the time. It is exhausting to watch, but it is undeniably impressive.

On the other end of the spectrum, Eldar Skar is relentlessly whiny as the emasculated Leif Henie. At one point, Henie calls Connie, her fictionalized secretary/punching bag, “mousy”—and boy, is that ever true of Valene Kane’s portrayal. Basically, her job is to look on woefully as her boss engages in yet more scandalous behavior. Arguably, Pål Sverre Hagen fares the best as Niels Onstad, her childhood friend and eventual third husband, who is the only one who ever gives Henie a good talking to.

With its heavy-synth-electro-ambient soundtrack, White Swan chucks away verisimilitude, reaching for some kind of Baz Luhrmann-Gatsby effect, but it never quite pulls it off. Instead, the film only really succeeds in turning the audience against Henie, but it leaves the mind boggled and baffled as to why she and her cast and crew would expend so much effort to do so. A real head-scratcher, Sonja: The White Swan screens again this morning (2/1) in Park City and tomorrow (2/2) in Salt Lake, as part of the Sundance Film Festival.