“Let down by its lack of originality or message.”
WWII dramas have been a regular sub-genre of cinema since, well, 1939. Every year the usual suspects line up again for their respective cinematic releases. Despite the usual cannon fodder however, there is always the select few that stand out, either as underrated gems or award frontrunners. The latest film to attempt this is The Birdcatcher.
Ross Clarke’s historic thriller begins in 1942, Trondheim, Norway. Our lead character, Esther (Sarah-Sofie Boussnina) is reciting famous stage-plays as she daydreams about a life under the spotlights. Her obsession with American culture is duly noted with a record player echoing jazz music as she gazes upon a wall dedicated to Hollywood stars. The warm colour palette of red and yellow overtones not only makes the autumnal setting clear, it also expresses to the audience the warmth and safety that Esther has. Although she may dream of a bigger world outside of her town, similar to Belle in Beauty and the Beast, her friendliness to every occupant inside the village is genuine. This over-exposed, glossy look makes Trondheim feel like a dream, but soon this peaceful town will be shaken to its core when the Nazis invade and round-up any Jewish civilians they can get their hands on.
Esther and her family attempt to flee when the Nazis come to their front door, hopping on the back of a truck that drives further into the isolated ice-cold landscape that Norway has now become in the winter months. However, even in the middle of nowhere, the Nazis are able to track them down causing Esther to lose her family’s whereabouts when they all have to jump off the truck. Esther continues to run until she comes across Aksel (Arhur Hakalahti), a teenage boy who is the embarrassment of his family and especially his father Johann (Jakob Cedergren) due to his limp. As Esther traces Aksel back to his family farm unnoticed, she comes to the shocking realisation that the family are Nazi-sympathisers. But when Esther figures out her family’s fate she has no other choice but to take residence on the family farm, cutting her hair and hiding in plain sight as a boy named Ula (or Oola).
The Birdcatcher is certainly short of originality; in fact it doesn’t have any at all. It may be trying to advertise itself as “based on a true story” (the screenplay is not based off any previous material), the girl “hiding as a boy” plot is not at all ground-breaking, especially when the antagonists of the film are the Nazis. August Diehl playing a small role as a Nazi officer only seems like a marketing choice in the hopes that Inglorious Basterds fans may take a sniff of his filmography and give the film a chance. Unfortunately, his incredibly small role ends up leaving little to impress, instead feeling like a wasted opportunity.
There is no weak link to the cast in question, but the decision to have these Norwegian, Danish and German actors speak only English throughout the film ultimately diminishes their acting, meaning the emotional beats don’t hit as hard as they’d like to. The lack of message also adds to the isolation the audience may feel when it comes to connecting with these characters. The main message being “Nazis are bad but some Nazi-sympathisers aren’t.” is a fairly complicated stance to take, especially when you’re trying to relate this story to modern movie-goers.
Plenty of comparisons are being made during the film’s runtime. The urban vs. rural setting is the clearest, with Esther’s ethereal state of living in her urban setting being torn to pieces the moment she steps foot on snow. The film is also cluttered with dream sequences, some that are trying to make a point about Esther’s motivations, but instead only slows down the pace of the movie.
Although there is a lot that doesn’t work about this movie, there are the occasional moments that depict what the film was going for and what it could have been. John Christian Rosenlund’s cinematography is the best part about The Birdcatcher and he is able to make the frame at least look interesting whilst it’s filled with monotonous action. The opening moments of the film in Trondheim are some of the best, where the constant haze and lighting combine to form a rich structure in the picture. Even the exterior farm scenes had clearly taken time to perfect, making Esther’s journey to the farm feel like a fairy-tale.
The Birdcatcher in all its simplicity lacks the key components that a movie like this needs. Structure, theme and originality are ignored in the hopes that a Mexican stand-off will suffice.
Dir: Ross Clarke
Prod: Ross Clarke, Leon Clarance, Lisa Black
Cast: Sarah-Sofie Boussnina, Arhur Hakalahti, Jakob Cedergren, Laura Birn, August Diehl
Release Date: 2019
Available at: Select Cinemas (October 4th, UK)