Out Stealing Horses

****

Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

Out Stealing Horses
"With Petterson’s novel heavily focused on Trond’s inner life, it’s no easy task to bring it to the screen." | Photo: 4 1/2 Film

A personal history in the style of David Copperfield, which it references throughout, Hans Petter Moland’s adaptation of Per Petterson’s international bestseller suffers from the ponderousness that too often plagued Dickens, yet has at its heart the same sympathy for its vanished hero that illuminated the Victorian author’s favourite work. Lost because, as both authors and Moland understood, the boys of whom they wrote were people who could never truly be reclaimed – memories distant from their adult selves, who had been through such changes that they could never again see the world in the same way.

Trond (Stellan Skarsgård), the hero of this film, is 60 years old when we meet him. It’s 1999 and whilst people all round the world prepare to celebrate the turn of the millenium, he’s hiding away in a remote house in the forests of Norway, having left his old home, friends and family behind in Sweden. He does have a connection with this place, however. Long ago, when he was just 15, he spent a summer here that changed his life. Though neither of them realises it when first they’re reacquainted, part of that summer was spent in the company of Lars (Bjørn Floberg), who is now his next door neighbour. Together, the two old men reminisce about times past, with Moland cutting back and forth in the narrative to reflect on how little they understood at the time and how much they still struggle to understand today.

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With Petterson’s novel heavily focused on Trond’s inner life, it’s no easy task to bring it to the screen, but where Moland has an advantage is in his ability to bring the sweeping vistas of the northern Norwegian landscape into play, seducing the audience with lush grassy fields, thick pine forests and a sparkling river – all in stark contrast to the bleakness of winter where the men now find themselves. In that past age, during the period of optimism and ambition that followed the war, Trond was visiting Norway in the company of his father, taking a break from city life to learn a new set of active, outdoor skills (like stealing horses – or, rather, borrowing them, because he remains a fairly sheltered and well behaved lad). There’s the summertime lust you’d expect of a kid that age, though its object may be a little surprising, but the story’s main focus is elsewhere, as Trond (played at this stage by the excellent Jon Ranes) picks up mixed signals about what it means to be a man and uncovers something of the essential conflict between ego and duty, between independent mindedness and doing right by those whom one loves. Does it really come down to choosing whether or not to be hurt by the nettles?

Designed to appeal to nostalgia, this is a film that will most strongly attract those who have their own childhood memories of engaging in community activities like fence building or sending lumber down the river; or those who simply dream of doing such things. There’s a dark side to it, however, as Lars’ life that summer was hurtling towards tragedy and Trond’s toward a different kind of suffering, with the implication being that both remain haunted by these events in later life. If you haven’t read the book, listen closely to early conversations, which you may replay in your memory in a different light after watching the rest of the film. this will take you a while, though – at a full two hours it’s really longer than it needs to be and it too often carries the weight of old age when it should be lighter on its feet. It will move you, it will enchant you, but ultimately it will fail to sweep you off your feet the way it might have done.

Reviewed on: 28 Feb 2020
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Out Stealing Horses packshot
Trond Sander, 67, recalls the summer of 1948. When this blissful time came to an end, nothing was the same as before.

Festivals:

BIFF 2019
Glasgow 2020

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