U July 22 review:  Erik Poppe directs this utterly gripping, intensely crafted story of the horrific events in Norway in the summer of 2011.

U July 22 review by Paul Heath.

U July 22 review
U July 22 review

Erik Poppe’s latest opens with a sweeping, near silent shot over Oslo. It’s July 22nd, 2011, mere moments before a car bomb devastates the city. The tragic event, the first of two shocking lone attacks by right-wing extremist Anders Behring Breivik, claimed eight lives and injured over 200 more, but his most devastating incident and most evil act that day was to still come.

Moments into the film we’re introduced to Andrea Berntzen’s Kaja, just one of five hundred teenagers taking part in a Labour Party summer camp on the island of Utøya in Tyrifjorden, Buskerud. We’re first see her in a motionless camera shot, backed by seemingly endless woods, the character looking directly as us before uttering the words ‘try to understand’. Seconds later, it’s revealed that she’s talking to her mother, hands free on her mobile device, while at the same time searching for her younger sister, Emilie (Elli Rhiannon Müller Osbourne).  We follow her to a nearby tent, where Emilie finally shows up, the younger sibling brushing away her sister’s questions as she goes about changing following a swim. The intent is the two to venture off to an evening barbecue, along with a few of the other youths, but Emilie refuses to budge on her decision not to go along.

Heading off anyway, Kaja meets up with some of her other peers. Moments later shots ring out in the distance, first mistaken for firecrackers. When some of the campers are seen running towards the clubhouse near to the main tent area, Kaja and her friends soon realise that something much worse is a foot, the long bangs gradually getting closer.

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Poppe’s film plays out in real-time, using only one continuous take, the next 72 minutes pulling the viewer into the shocking events of that day, a lone gunman patrolling the campsite picking off victims one by one – an incident which would lead to 69 people being shot dead, a further 110 injured, and 300 more suffering from severe mental trauma.

Poppe treads carefully not to glorify the  horrifying event, focusing his camera largely around the Kaja, and the older sibling’s search for her younger sister. The film is intensely moving and supremely performed, mostly by actors making their debut appearance, U: July 22 absorbs the viewer with shocking realism using fictional characters, Anna Bache-Wiig and Siv Rajendram Eliassen constructing the screenplay from detailed accounts of the survivors. This, along with Poppe and cinematographer Martin Otterbeck’s unrelenting, incessant camera work, along with the important accompanying sound – a key ingredient – naturally brings a relentless realism to proceedings, which doesn’t let up until the closing credits, which thankfully come sooner rather later, the film clocking in at a taut 90 minutes.

Spread out, though methodically planned moving sequences with multiple characters and dozens of extras are interwoven with scenes involving just a couple of actors here and there, these scenes providing the most touching moments, particularly one-half way in where a young girl succumbs to her wounds after being consoled by Kaja, only seconds later the deceased girl’s mother visibly trying in vain to reach her on her mobile phone.

U: July 22 is a brave, very hard picture to watch, and in other, less trusted hands this could have glorified proceedings with persistent glossy missteps, but Poppe doesn’t do that. His film is technically brilliant, every tiny detail across the film meticulously mapped out, but it is the central performance of the unknown Andrea Berntzen, our ‘guide’ throughout, who effortlessly carries the piece, a film which should get her noticed on the world stage – and rightly so.

Obviously shocking, utterly devastating, absolutely horrifying and tense all of the way through, Poppe’s astounding U: July 22 , a work only unveiled at the last minute for this year’s Berlinale competition, is one sure to cause mass debate, but is also one that is definitely a serious contender.

U July 22 review by Paul Heath, February 2018.

U: July 22 was reviewed at the 2018 Berlin International Film Festival.

U: July 22