Perhaps it’s just a case of poor timing that means we’ve received two feature films about Anders Breivik’s attack on Oslo and Utøya within the same year. These things do have a habit of coming in pairs – the summer of 2006 saw the release of Oliver Stone’s World Trade Center and Paul Greengrass’ United 93, both focusing on the events of 9/11. This autumn sees Erik Poppe’s U-July 22 and Greengrass’ 22 July both deal with the devastating slaughter of 77 people (primarily teenagers) at the hands of a far-right extremist.
Opening on the morning of 22 July, 2011, Greengrass focuses in on three individuals: teenager Sveinn Are Hanssen (Thorbjørn Harr) Norwegian Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg (Ola G Furuseth) and Brevick himself (Anders Danielsen Lie). After showing Brevick carrying out the bomb attack on Oslo’s parliament building, the film continues to the social youth summer camp on Utøya Island. A harrowing sequence depicts Brevick hunting down and killing 69 teenagers, before showing the aftermath, in which Brevick stands trial and Sveinn Are Hanssen attempts to recover from the trauma he sustained on the day, both physical and mental.
The difficulty about making a film about recent traumatic incidents – particularly those that occurred in the Western world – comes in the fact it’s hard to tell audiences anything not gleaned from the news cycle. We’re exposed to shocking images, we see victims tearfully recounting details of their trauma on the witness stand. In the case of Brevik, his trial was widely covered by the media, and he did not shy away from making his intentions known. Greengrass’ film fails to really tell us anything new about the devastating impact of the Oslo and Utøya attack, and in splitting his film between three stories, never manages to really find a particularly compelling angle.
Although newcomer Thorbjørn Harr gives a committed performance as teenage victim Sveinn Are Hanssen, his story of rehabilitation feels overfamiliar (bringing to mind David Gordon Green’s Stronger). It feels entirely inappropriate to juxtapose this with a narrative thread following Brevick’s imprisonment, particularly since he is unrepentant about his actions and steadfast in his abhorrent political beliefs. Greengrass clearly doesn’t want his audience to feel sympathy for Brevick, but what does it achieve in recreating his likeness, or to show a tearful Sveinn confronting him in court?
The primary failure of 22 July is that it takes a three-prong approach to its subject material. Individually the stories are intriguing, particularly that of Geir Lippestad (Jon Øigarden), the defence lawyer assigned to Brevik. Wrestling with his personal feelings and professional duty, as well as the public perception of him (Lippestad’s family start receiving threatening phone calls after the trial begins), Lippestad’s narrative feels the most complex, but too quickly we’re pulled away from him to the concurrent plotlines, as if Greengrass has tried to merge three films into one.
The result feels like emotional battery, designed to evoke distress in its audience without having anything new or interesting to say. Films about recent acts of extreme violence can help us understand and make sense of the difficult world we live in, but 22 July feels like a cynical attempt to package trauma for mass consumption.