Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

"The only way to pull off a film like this is to approach it with absolute confidence. Jalmari Helander does a fantastic job."

No matter how many clever ideas screenwriters may come up with, no matter the spectacles which can now be created through CGI, nothing hits home at the cinema like a simple tale told really, really well. Sisu is such a tale, and it will stay with you.

Part of the Balto-Finnic language group, which only has around seven million speakers in total, Finnish has a lot of words which are difficult to translate into more widely known tongues. ‘Sisu’, we are assured, is one of them. Whilst its closest cognate in English might be ‘impetus’, it has wider connotations, and is described here as being the sort of courage which one finds when everything else is lost. It’s the perfect central concept for what is in essence a western, set in the high, rugged country of Lapland – and like many of the best westerns, it revolves around gold.

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One hesitates to say more. There isn’t much plot, and it would be easy to give too much away. Suffice to say that an old man strikes it lucky and comes across a gold deposit which would make John Carter envious. Before he can get it to a bank, however, he is interrupted by a squad of Nazis who want the gold for themselves. Their commander knows that the war will soon be over and realises that his life could depend on having the money to buy his way out of trouble. He will stop at nothing to get it. Unfortunately for him, the old man has a history – a legend, even – and an extraordinary measure of willpower. Where the commander desires gold, he desires revenge.

The film is divided into chapters and underscored with a dry wit which is present throughout, though manifested directly only in the final scene. It is dominated by a landscape of scrub and lichen, dull browns and greens and searing yellows beneath a heavy grey sky. Despite its openness, danger comes from unexpected places. Layers of story are revealed in brief asides or simply in the way that characters look at each other. The presence of a visibly Finnish man (Onni Tommila) amongst the Nazis reminds us of the collaborations which enabled them in the north. The history of tensions between the Finns and the Russians is also alluded to, situating the story in its full historical context.

The only way to pull off a film like this is to approach it with absolute confidence. Jalmari Helander does a fantastic job. His pacing is perfect and viewers will be on the edge of their seats. There is a level of brutality on display which is appropriate to the theme, yet he also know how and when to interject brief moments of tenderness which speak volumes. Although Jorma Tommila, gruffly charismatic as the hard-bitten hero, has barely any lines, we get to know him on a deep level over the course of the film. Recalcitrant though he is, he gives us just enough to keep us onside so that as his actions gradually stray into more unlikely territory, we believe in him sufficiently to roll with it. Everything is just possible, and and awe-inspiring.

Alongside the Rare Exports alumni, Norway’s Aksel Hennie (who himself played a hero fighting Nazis in Max Manus Man Of War) is on fine form as the commander, enough of a presence that we can believe in his ability to maintain control even as his men begin to panic. There is also a great supporting turn from Mimosa Willamo as a young woman who has a fair measure of sisu herself, and between them these various cast members remind us how much good acting can contribute to an action-focused film. Big on atmosphere and relentless in its intensity, Sisu is one of the best films of 2023 to date, and well worth your time.

Reviewed on: 24 Apr 2023
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After a solitary prospector strikes gold in the wilderness of Lapland, he runs into a retreating detachment of Nazi soldiers who set their sights on claiming the bounty. Unfortunately for the stormtroopers, this is no ordinary miner.
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Read more Sisu reviews:

Andrew Robertson ***1/2

Director: Jalmari Helander

Writer: Jalmari Helander

Starring: Jorma Tommila, Aksel Hennie, Jack Doolan, Onni Tommila, Mimosa Willamo

Year: 2022

Runtime: 91 minutes

Country: Finland

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The Revenant