What to watch at LFF: icy visions and the best new Nordic cinema

New work from Lars von Trier and Ruben Östlund heads up the selection from Nordic filmmakers at this year’s BFI London Film Festival.

The Woodcutter Story (2022)

The range of films, series and XR titles from Nordic creatives at this year’s BFI London Film Festival straddles a wide spectrum of genres across the LFF’s strands. We have new discoveries, including the world premiere of writer-director Ami-ro Sköld’s prescient live action-animation hybrid The Store, and Maya Nilo (Laura), a vibrant Volvo-driven first feature from Lovisa Sirén.

There are also new films from the directors of previous LFF favourites, including Ruben Östlund’s Palme d’Or-winning Triangle of Sadness, Hlynur Pálmason’s sublime Godland, Ali Abbasi’s chilling Holy Spider, Tarik Saleh’s Boy from Heaven, and a return from Danish provocateur Lars von Trier with the much anticipated third instalment of his cult TV series The Kingdom Exodus. 

Matters of faith

In Hlynur Pálmason’s Godland (screening in Official Competition), Lucas (Elliott Crosset Hove), an ill-prepared Danish priest, attempts to establish a Christian church in a remote 19th-century Icelandic community. He’s wrapped up in legalism and seemingly more concerned to document the locals with his exquisite silver-plate photography than to ‘save’ their souls. Crosset Hove’s intense lead performance and Pálmason’s carefully written characterisation offer a fresh and arresting depiction of the arrogance of the colonising missionary. The Icelandic writer-director studied film at the National Film School of Denmark, and in working across both film cultures (his first feature Winter Brothers (2017) was set in Denmark and his next, A White, White Day (2019), in Iceland) he brings a sensitive and at times brutal understanding of the historical tensions at play between Icelandic and Danish traditions and values.

Godland (Vanskabte Land / Volaða Land, 2022)

Iranian-born, Swedish and Danish-educated and Copenhagen-based writer-director Ali Abbasi, who thrilled LFF audiences with his mind-bending Border in 2018, returns with Holy Spider (screening as a Special Presentation). It’s inspired by the true story of a serial killer in Mashhad, Iran who, in 2000/2001, fuelled by misdirected religious zeal, attempted to ‘clean’ the streets of female sex workers. Exploring misogyny in many of its forms, Abbasi reframes the story around Rahimi (Zar Amir-Ebrahimi, who won best actress at Cannes), a deeply empathetic female journalist, doggedly investigating crimes that the authorities are at best turning a blind eye to. Shocking and suspenseful, Holy Spider has been selected as Denmark’s official 2023 Academy Awards entry for best international feature film.

Following his recent history-inspired thriller The Nile Hilton Incident (2017), writer-director Tarik Saleh returns to Cairo for Boy from Heaven. Born and raised in Stockholm to Swedish and Egyptian parents, Saleh’s new film sees Adam, a poor fisherman’s son, unexpectedly offered a scholarship at Al-Azhar University, renowned as the most prestigious university for Islamic learning. Soon after his arrival, however, he finds himself thrown into a brutal power struggle between the religious and political elites of modern-day Egypt. Exquisitely paced, with a knock-out script that won him best screenplay at Cannes earlier this year, Boy from Heaven has also been selected as Sweden’s official submission for the Oscars. 

Money trouble, the 1% and the modern world

Set at very different ends of the economic spectrum, Ami-ro Sköld’s provocative near-future Sweden-set social-realist drama The Store uses live-action and stop-motion animation to intimately explore lives lived at the very bottom of the ‘wealth’ pile, whereas in Triangle of Sadness Swedish director Ruben Östlund takes broad aim at the hyper rich and the super beautiful in his pitch black satirical dissection of the dynamics of power and privilege. 

The challenges of modern life and family bonds are gloriously redefined in Lovisa Sirén’s vibrant Stockholm-to-Sagres road trip Maya Nilo (Laura), while Lars Henrik Ostenfeld’s environmental documentary Into the Ice illustrates, to breathtaking effect, the vital importance of scientists’ work on the melting of Greenland’s glaciers into the world’s oceans.

The surreal and fantastic

As if David Lynch transplanted his Twin Peaks universe to icy northern Finland, The Woodcutter Story (the debut feature from Mikko Myllylahti, writer of 2019’s The Happiest Day in the Life of Olli Mäki) sees woodcutter Pepe’s blissful life upturned by a series of increasingly bizarre events. And in Sick of Myself, Norwegian wannabe influencer Signe (an outstanding Kristine Kujath Thorp) pushes and then wildly exceeds the boundaries of ‘acceptable’ behaviour in pursuit of attention and recognition. 

The Kingdom Exodus (2022)

Venturing deep into the world of the fantastic, writer-director Kjersti Helen Rasmussen’s chilling Norwegian high-rise-set debut feature Nightmare explores antenatal anxieties by way of night terrors and a mythical sleep demon. Lars von Trier returns to the supernatural with the third season of his hospital drama The Kingdom Exodus, populated with many familiar faces from series one and two, and featuring customarily idiosyncratic turns from previous von Trier collaborators Willem Dafoe and Alexander Skarsgård. Set years after the previous series, it sees ghosts of the past and spectres of the present regime collide in the uncanny netherworld of Copenhagen’s most infamous hospital. 

Set in both Denmark and the UK, and rooted in Jewish mythology and mysticism, debut director Gabriel Bier Gislason’s slow-burning queer horror Attachment features extraordinary performances from its UK and Nordic cast, notably Ellie Kendrick, Josephine Park, Sofie Gråbøl and David Dencik.  

And, don’t miss Danish writer-director Tobias Lindholm’s (writer of Another Round) English language directorial debut The Good Nurse, an unsentimental and quietly insidious true-crime portrait of a serial killer, starring Jessica Chastain and Eddie Redmayne. Finally, if true crime is your thing, there’s also the Treasures archive restoration of Eight Deadly Shots (1972), an epic five-hour drama inspired by the real-life story of a Finnish farmer who killed four policemen in 1969.

This is just a selection of Nordic creativity at this year’s festival. You can find further LFF films produced in or with Nordic countries by searching our ‘Countries A to Z’ listings.

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