Directed by Nils Gaup
Lene Elise Bergum, Svein Roger Karlsen, Morten Abel, Reidar Sørensen
I have to admit that I don't really watch a lot of Norwegian thrillers. Not because I don't like thrillers from my own homeland but simply because there are very, very few of them. As such, Head Above Water stands out since it's one of the very few Norwegian thrillers. It's also easily one of the best Norwegian films from the 1990s.
The story takes place on an idyllic and isolated little island in the south of Norway, where newly-wed couple Einar (Svein Roger Karlsen) and Lene (Lene Elise Bergum) are vacationing at their seaside summer house. Einar is a magistrate and he is noticeably older than his young, pretty wife, who has been struggling a bit with her nerves – popping a few more tranquilizers than she ought to. The only other person on the island is Lene's old childhood friend, Bjørn (Morten Abel), who lives in another cabin nearby.
The nervous Lene panics completely at the thought of what Einar is going to think, and - acting purely on impulse - she drags her ex-boyfriend’s naked corpse out of the bedroom and hides him in the potato cellar...
Hiding the corpse
To reveal any more of the plot would be a crime as it would deprive first-time viewers of many great and unpredictable surprises in the plot. Rest assured that there are plenty of neat twists and turns in store – with the viewers never being quite sure about what has happened or who to trust.
Director Nils Gaup is without doubt one of Norway’s most talented filmmakers. After making his debut with the gripping adventure film Pathfinder (1987), which received an Oscar nomination for best foreign film, and following up with the partially Disney-financed youth adventure Håkon Håkonsen (1990), Gaup was offered work in Hollywood. He was asked to direct the Sally Field flick Not Without My Daughter (1991) but turned it down and instead made his third film in Norway. The film he made was of course Head Above Water, which became a great success and won the prestigious Norwegian movie award, the Amanda, for best film of the year. The film also achieved some success abroad, which inevitably led to a Hollywood remake starring Harvey Keitel and Cameron Diaz in 1996.
It's no wonder Hollywood tried to imitate this film because it's a very effective thriller and Gaup demonstrates a great talent for building tension and suspense. The setting on a small, secluded island is clever and allows the narrative to focus very closely on its small cast and let the growing tension between them flourish. The fact that there are only three characters really works to the film's advantage; tightening the focus and building up a claustrophobic atmosphere as the unexpected twists in the plot force the characters to re-evaluate their opinions of each other (the audience to re-evaluate our opinions of the characters). The effective tension is held up all the way till the film's dark but amusingly ironic conclusion.
The acting by the small cast is uniformly excellent, with top honors going to the outstanding Svein Roger Karlsen, who is required to go through several shifts in his portrayal of the husband. He is ably supported by debutant Lene Elise Bergum, who is terrific as the nervous, young wife. Although Bergum's pill-popping character initially reminds one a bit of the kind of giallo heroines played by Carroll Baker in the 1960s, she quickly reveals herself as highly resourceful and demonstrates a tremendous survival instinct, which makes her extremely compelling to watch. Bergum also possesses a very natural charm and has great chemistry with all of her male co-stars. She's also shown to have no qualms about taking her clothes off at regular intervals. Unfortunately, Bergum never really fulfilled the promise she showed here. Other than a long-running role on Scandinavia's longest-running daytime soap, Hotel Cæsar, she only really had a couple of dumb blonde roles in short-lived sitcoms, and eventually retired from acting altogether. A real shame!
If you're looking for quality European thrillers you might have missed out on then look no further because Head Above Water is just what you're after. The Norwegian DVD released by SF Norge contains English subtitles, so I highly recommend picking it up so you can enjoy this little gem. Just make sure you sit through the entire closing credits or else you'll miss the film's final ironic twist.
© 2009 Johan Melle
Svein Roger Karlsen as Einar
Morten Abel as Bjørn
Reidar Sørensen as Gaute