Speak No Evil


Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

Speak No Evil
"Tafdrup chooses to follow the more familiar route, carrying events to a natural extreme, but in a way this lets the Danish couple off the hook." | Photo: Courtesy of Fantasia International Film Festival

When young Agnes (Liva Forsberg) loses her beloved toy bunny, Ninus, as they’re wandering round a small Tuscan town, her father Bjørn (Morten Burian) goes to find him. When he returns, he finds Agnes and her mother, Louise (Sidsel Siem Koch) chatting to a family they met at the their hotel: Patrick (Fedja van Huêt), Karin (Karina Smulders) and young Abel (Marius Damslev). Patrick congratulates him on finding Nimus and tells him it was real heroism, pressing the point. Bjørn is uncomfortable. Is he being praised or mocked? This, together with Abel’s general look of unhappiness, is the first warning sign.

If you’re a non-confrontational person, you’ll understand the desire to overlook such behaviours, even when they happen a few times, and to give people the benefit of the doubt. Friend ship develops between the two families easily enough, and it’s only in Agnes’ company that we ever see Abel smile. One might wonder if Patrick just has poor social skills or a neurological difference which affects the way he communicates. Louise is one of those people who habitually prioritises social harmony and likes to smooth things over. Everyone is enjoying their holiday. Later, when Louise and Bjørn have returned home to Denmark, they get a letter from the other family inviting them to visit them in the Netherlands. This second holiday will be very different.

Christian Tafdrup’s film never lets viewers entertain any doubt about where it is going. A big, dramatic score punctuating the opening scenes is accompanied by the amplified sound of cicadas. Ominous music returns at each step along the way as the Danish family relinquish more of their power. We see them going about day to day tasks in slow motion, like zombies, as if their fate were already decided – and yet this is very much a film about choice, about all the opportunities they have to do things differently. At times – visually and tonally – it is reminiscent of Michael Haneke’s The White Ribbon as an illustration of how easily polite society can slide into fascism.

In the meantime, it is the Danish couple’s principles which come under attack. Louise is ridiculed for being a pescatarian, despite the fact that nobody else is even trying. They are criticised for being uptight or unfriendly every time they hesitate. Karin also accuses Louise of being a poor mother because she doesn’t step in quickly enough on one occasion when Agnes is upset, despite the fact that she and Patrick bully Abel ceaselessly. This is the hardest part of the film to watch, especially if you are a parent or an abuse survivor yourself. Damslev is superb and captures a look, a way of being that nobody who has had contact with abused children can fail to recognise. He was born with congenital aglossia – an underdeveloped tongue – say the couple, explaining his difficulty speaking and a number of other odd behaviours, but even early on, his behaviour suggests something else.

This is where the narrative hits a fork in the road. Tafdrup chooses to follow the more familiar route, carrying events to a natural extreme, but in a way this lets the Danish couple off the hook. It becomes increasingly clear that they know the boy is in trouble, yet they do nothing – not even choosing the simple option of leaving and then calling the authorities. The notion of children as the property of their parents looms large, and thanks to Damslev’s performance, it is this aspect of the film which has the greatest impact, even as its sets the stage for events which will impact the visiting Danes more personally.

The production design in this film is magnificent, which each of the two homes telling us a good deal about its residents. The abundance of lived-in detail conceals clues which will scream out loud to anyone with a grounding in the typical behaviours of predatory individuals and couples, yet this perfectly mirrors the way that worrying behaviours become lost in everything else that’s going on. One presumes that we are close to the Stijfveen, because there’s really nowhere else in the Netherlands that is this remote. In places the ground is marshy, and moisture fills the air, always a gift to cinematographers. Patrick takes Bjørn to a place where they can yell as loud as they want and nobody can hear them. Emptiness and abundance nestle side by side.

Lively and outgoing, child in tow, Patrick and Karin blend easily into the fabric of the world; they can go where they want to, tell whatever story they want, and people will accept them. You could have friends just like them. The chances are that if you objected to what seemed like an imposition, you’d be seen as the rude one. Tafdrup’s film urges viewers to be rude when occasion calls for it, to speak up whilst they can.

Reviewed on: 10 Sep 2022
Share this with others on...
Speak No Evil packshot
A Danish family visits a Dutch family they met on a holiday. What was supposed to be an idyllic weekend slowly starts unraveling as the Danes try to stay polite in the face of unpleasantness.
Amazon link

Director: Christian Tafdrup

Writer: Christian Tafdrup, Mads Tafdrup

Starring: Morten Burian, Sidsel Siem Koch, Fedja van Huêt, Karina Smulders, Liva Forsberg, Marius Damslev, Hichem Yacoubi, Lea Baastrup Rønne, Jesper Dupont, Sieger Sloot, Andrea Benucci, Adrian Blanchard, Alessio Barni, Ilaria Casai, Ilaria Di Raimo

Year: 2022

Runtime: 97 minutes

Country: Denmark, Netherlands

Search database: