Friday, 20 April 2012

Film review: 20 April

Scandinavian crime thrillers are two-a-penny, but Headhunters is cinematic gold

Written by Barry Norman
barry-normanBWWhat is it with these Scandiwegians? For decades Americans led the way in writing crime fiction but in recent years they've been overtaken by such Swedes as Henning Mankell and Stieg Larsson and now the Norwegian Jo Nesbø. (Actually I have my doubts about that name; I suspect he was born plain Jo Bones and decided to make himself sound a bit more exotic.)

Nesbø's novel Headhunters is not one of his best but the film is a cracker, excising the flab in the book and cutting straight to the chase.

The result is the best screen thriller to come along since the Swedish versions of Larsson's The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo series. Oh, and by the way, it's in Norwegian with subtitles.

Mostly Nesbø's books feature an Oslo cop called Harry Hole (pronounced Hurler) but here his protagonist, Roger Brown, played brilliantly by the diminutive Aksel Hennie, is a headhunter, recruiting talent for big business.

He's doing well but not well enough because he's married to Diana, (Synnøve Macody Lund), a lofty, high-maintenance blonde whom he plies with expensive gifts. So to avoid bankruptcy he supplements his income by stealing artworks from his clients' homes and selling them on.

What is remarkable about the film, directed with verve and skill by Morten Tyldum, is that even in the early art theft scenes it hits a nail-biting level of tension, although you know all this is merely a preamble to the really hard-hitting stuff to come – and then maintains it throughout.

Roger's nemesis takes the form of handsome Clas Greve (Nicolaj Coster-Waldau), former boss of a powerful firm with military contracts. Roger promises to recruit him (after duly robbing him of a Reubens masterpiece) to head an equally important firm in Oslo.

But then he discovers that Greve is sleeping with Diana and refuses to recommend him for the job. And Greve, a former soldier trained to kill in a special forces unit, is so incensed that he sets out to murder Roger. Now here the story has a weakness. Why is Greve prepared to kill anyone, not just Roger, who gets in his way? Because of Diana? The stolen picture? Or because he wants the job so badly? His motives when fi nally revealed don't seem quite strong enough to justify so much violence.

But no matter. The ingenious ways in which murderous headhunter Greve pursues business headhunter Roger and the one eludes the other are relentlessly thrilling and inventive. In a stomach-churning sequence, for example, Roger even buries himself in a cesspit crammed full of, well, what you'd expect to find in a cesspit.

And as the chase goes on our sympathies shift. Before the violence begins Greve is the more sympathetic character; Roger is smug, cocky, untrustworthy and unlikeable. But long before the end he's the one we're shouting for.

It's a brutal film, certainly, but intelligent and exciting. The Americans are already making an English version but they'll have to go some to equal the original.

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