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Review: The Here After

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Scandinavian filmmaking is so much more than your run-of-the-mill television crime dramas or big screen adaptation of hit thriller novels. The independent scene has a lot to offer like for instance heartbreaking Swedish transgender drama Something Must Break that found its way to the UK last year and couldn’t recommend more. In the same realm of cinema reflecting upon current social issues is The Here After(Efterskalv), which also hails from Sweden and premiered in the Directors’ Fortnight at last year’s Cannes Film Festival and then went on to win three Guldbagge Awards (the Swedish Oscars) for Best Film, Best Director and Best Supporting Actor.

The film is actually a co-production between Sweden, Poland and France as Swedish writer/director Magnus Von Horn has studied at the Łódź Film School in Poland and still lives there with his wife and child. And indeed The Here After, despite being set in small-town Sweden, has the more eclectic feel of a film whose cultural influences are broader than just one country. The cold, detached, almost clinical world the characters gravitate in definitely hints at something way beyond the cliché perception we have of Nordic customs.

The story couldn’t be more straightforward, yet the execution is so masterfully nuanced that you keep wondering what will happen next at every corner. Teenager John (Ulrik Munther), returns home after three years spent in a juvenile facility for the murder of his girlfriend but his rehabilitation in the social community he was taken away from proves to be extremely challenging to say the very least. Now, your first instinct may be to wonder why we should care about a young murderer, as this is not a film about a mystery to uncover, a case re-opened, and the hope that our protagonist is actually innocent. Yet despite John’s guilt being a matter of fact, the film is most importantly about trying to understand the why and how and whether redemption and rehabilitation are possible given the subject’s young age.

The Swedish filmmaker does a remarkable job at telling the story without ever suggesting that one way of seeing things is better or more righteous than others. He works within the realistic realm of those grey areas that human life is actually made of and offers an objective yet powerful look not just at how society deals with such issues but especially at how we are undeniably the product of said society. The film is so complex and multi-layered beneath its surface of simplicity that you can’t help by being gripped from start to finish by the haunting and mounting tension growing behind the silences and looks.

John returns home to his father (Mats Blomgren) and little brother and we never learn any information about his mother’s absence but it’s not that surprising as the patriarchal nature of this social community is evidently a defining trait. If on one side we sympathize with John’s father for raising these children by himself and trying to do his best by them, on another level we sense that the man’s stern and somber demeanour must have had a thing or two to do with John’s actions.

Things though aren’t that simple to analyse and Von Horn skillfully takes his time to explore and unravel John’s feelings and psyche. The boy is shut down and barely speaks and who should he speak to since everyone at school avoids him and some kids in particular don’t hold back voicing their disapproval about John being allowed back in their school? John stoically takes all the insults and the bullying in silence, without reacting and when he notices a glimpse of compassion from Malin, a new girl who moved there whilst he was in prison, the boy sees a glimmer of hope in the bleakness that surrounds him.

However, the past is still there to haunt him at every corner and besides everyone around him making sure he doesn’t forget, he has his own troubles letting go as we see him sneak inside the house of girl he killed and try to deal with his feelings about his actions and confront the girl’s mother who inevitably can’t accept his return. The film touches upon its delicate themes without ever indulging in melodrama and cleverly builds an underlying tension destined to explode in a cathartic finale that once again is handled beautifully and avoids predictable clichés.

Swedish pop star Ulrik Munther is stunning in his acting debut as John, showing the sensibility of a consummated professional, perfectly balancing out the emotional roller-coaster his character goes through whilst trying to reclaim his life. Mats Blomgren who plays his father and won the Swedish Oscar for Best Supporting actor is a great counterpart to Munther’s introvert John and their tense scenes together are an acting masterclass. And of course Von Horn impresses not only for the way he confidently leads his cast but especially for the mesmerizing way in which he crafts his narrative, creating a vivid world through small character moments and economic storytelling that’s as much riveting as it is constrained.

The first film that comes to mind whilst watching The Here After is John Crawley’s outstanding and equally underrated Boy A (2007) that launched Andrew Garfield’s career and tells a similar story, inviting the audience to reflect upon our upbringing and society’s responsibility in our actions. It’s a rather important issue to meditate on and with The Here After, Von Horn demonstrates a maturity and sensibility way beyond that of a first feature filmmaker. His greatest merit is that of telling the story earnestly and subtly through John’s perspective. There’s no flashbacks or exposition or other character’s revelations. Everything we see and hear is through John’s eyes and by the time credits roll we’re able to make up our own mind as to how we feel about him and the world we live in.

5-out-of-5

The Here After is out now in selected UK cinemas

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