Hope addresses the realities of cancer with great sensitivity

Maria Sødahl’s first film in almost 10 years explores the Norwegian director’s own experiences with cancer, resulting in a moving portrait of grief and illness that’s never mawkish or maudlin.

Andrea Bræin Hovig and Stellan Skarsgård as Anja and Tomas in Hope
Stellan Skarsgård and Andrea Bræin Hovig as Tomas and Anja in Hope Motlys/Manuel Claro

Hope is in UK cinemas from December 10. 

Beautifully observed and deeply moving, the Norwegian writer/director Maria Sødahl’s long-awaited follow-up to her 2010 debut Limbo carefully mines the trauma of terminal illness to extract moments of resilience, loyalty, love and, yes, hope. Sødahl was inspired by her own battle with cancer, and her measured, defiantly pragmatic approach is matched by naturalistic performances by Andrea Bræin Hovig and Stellan Skarsgård as Anja and Tomas, a long-term couple who must redraw their faltering relationship in the face of Anja’s incurable brain tumour.

Between them, Anja and the much older Tomas have six children, busy lives as successful dance and theatre producers and a bond that is now more about habit and logistics than passion and emotion. More invested in work and kids than each other, they have found it easy to ignore the fact that their relationship has gone stale. Then Anja – who recovered from lung cancer a year before – is told that she has a cancerous growth on her brain. The prognosis is dire.

But it’s Christmas, and Anja is defiantly determined to keep things as normal. The table groans with food and parties are attended, even as she battles blinding headaches and debilitating nausea. As the festivities are interspersed with hospitals, consultants and tests, Anja and Tomas find themselves thrown together in a way they have not been for years; initially hesitant in this renewed closeness, they find they must relearn their feelings, and find new ones, if their family is going to survive this ordeal.

It’s a tribute to all involved that Hope is never mawkish or maudlin. Instead, Sødahl embraces the messy uncertainties of this situation; no one miraculously becomes a saint, or even finds the right thing to say. There are moments where, lost in fears and regrets, Anja is abjectly cruel to Tomas – “I’ve been eaten alive by you and the kids” she rails – while he in turn struggles to comfort her. They have moments of laughter, of anger, of intense recrimination. The pivotal, halfway-point scene in which they tell the children about Anja’s illness holds its devastating power in its matter-of-fact approach. “It’s serious,” she says through a tight smile, “but we don’t know the outcome.”

Craft choices are equally understated. Cinematographer Manuel Alberto Claro keeps shots wide and the lighting cool, the couple initially isolated from each other in their sprawling apartment even as it bustles with family life. And if Sødahl keeps Anja’s ultimate fate unknown, she leaves us with a palpable sense that glimmers of hope can be found even in the darkest of moments.