Hollywood is known to be ever ripe for the remake treatment, usually with catastrophic results. In a new series of articles, Gerald Wiley takes a look at films from the world over which are worth watching over their butchered American brethren. First up, Norwegian thriller Insomnia.
Jonas Engstrom (Stellan Skarsgård), a brilliant but burnt-out detective, is sent from Stockholm in Sweden to the north Norwegian town of Tromsø to take the lead in an investigation into the baffling murder of a local girl. Upon his arrival, Engstrom’s problems just start piling up; the local plod resent his presence based purely on his uncompromising reputation, an awkward relationship with an old flame in the Norwegian force is reopened, Engstrom and his Swedish partner Vik (Sverre Anker Ousdal) are at odds on the way forward while clues about the perpetrator are preciously few and far between.
But that’s not the half of it. Aside from his hated Swedish twang and the impenetrability of the local Tromsø dialect, being this far north in summer, Engstrom is having some serious trouble sleeping due to the non-stop daylight. Nevertheless, despite his sleep-deprived judgment being called into question, with the incisive action that has made him infamous, Engstrom latches onto a suspect in the shape of local author Jon Holt (Bjørn Floberg) based on nothing more than intuition. When Engstrom’s sting operation to catch an armed Holt (whom no-one else believes to be capable of such a crime) goes awfully awry, Engstrom ends up shooting dead his partner Vik.
However, as the only investigator with knowledge of the true circumstances of Vik’s death, Engstrom isn’t going to let police procedure get in the way of his pursuit of Holt who, above the suspicion of the rest of the local force and as a witness to Engstrom’s inadvertant act, taunts his quarry with an air of absolute indifference. Unable to sleep, falsifying evidence and coercing witnesses, Engstrom may just lose his own sanity to catch the killer under the relentless scrutiny of the midnight sun…
Insomnia is something of a misnomer. As police thrillers go, it’s not about anything so mundane as simply catching the killer. As cat n’ mousers go, it’s not about a cop with questionable methods meeting his match in an equally ingenious criminal. It is, in fact, a fascinating insight to a man collapsing under the weight of his own demons as the glaze of the relentless sun beats down upon his furrowed brow.
As Engstrom’s pursuit of Holt becomes ever more fraught and fruitless, the cantakerous cop succumbs to waking dreams, false flashbacks and evocations of erotic aspirations. Engstrom’s barely concealed brutality, and misogyny, is brought to the fore in ways that he can’t control, ever exacerbated by his lack of shuteye. Paranoia and passion, strangled anger and self-loathing; all these, and more, play out in Engstrom’s mental torment with masterful handling by director Erik Skjoldbjærg (unfortunately best known worldwide for his misfiring Christina Ricci indie vehicle Prozac Nation). Disorienting and disturbing, fractured but never flashy, a consciousness in turmoil has rarely been dramatised in film as successfully as this.
Stellan Skarsgård is excellent as the perpetually sweaty Swedish protagonist, by turns pugnacious and pathetic, a man unable to address the basis of his own evident flaws and coming apart at the seams as a result. Excellent though his English may be, it’s refreshing to hear Skarsgård in his native tongue and still more enthralling to see him in such a meaty role as yet unafforded him in Hollywood.
Able support appears in the form of Bjørn Floberg as the Swede’s kindred spirit on the other side of the law; in fact, it’s one of the strengths of the film that the narrative isn’t afraid to explore the implications of a police badge being all that separates Engstrom from Holt. There’s a notable early turn too from Marie Bonnevie, who has since gone on to star in big international co-productions, as the quite contrary young hotel receptionist who becomes but one teasing focus of Engstrom’s sexual frustration.
Written by Nikolaj Frobenius in 1997, in co-operation with director Erik Skjoldbjærg, Insomnia is a composed and assured script, offering plenty for the actors, especially Skarsgård, to get their teeth into. Tromsø native Erik Skjoldbjærg, who recently had to boot into touch derisory comparisons to Heat with his treatment of Norway’s biggest bank heist in Nokas, directs with aplomb and yet permits no space for scenery-chewing. Utilising every available inch of the local landscape, Skjoldbjærg paints his hometown as a crumbling would-be city at the arse-end of the country, faded from former fishing town glories, papering over the cracks in its creaking judicial and transport infrastructure. If one is conversant with the town of Tromsø, it’s good fun to spot the large leaps in locations as Engstrom makes his onscreen way from street to street.