Silent Heart is a nuanced, smartly crafted and powerfully acted family drama from the legendary two-time Palme d’Or winning Danish director Bille August (Pelle the Conqueror, The Best Intentions and Night Train to Lisbon). Written well by Christian Torpe and featuring an all-star multi-generational national cast, Silent Heart won a number of Danish film awards including Best Film, Best Actress, Best Supporting Actor and Best Screenplay, after premiering to a standing ovation at the 2014 San Sebastian Film Festival. Though tackling a controversial topic it manages to be rather lovely and is sure to strike a chord with appreciators of graceful, polished, old-fashioned dramatic filmmaking and really any viewer who has ever been involved in a tough family decision.
Proud matriarch Esther (Ghita Nørby) and her doctor husband Poul (Morten Grunwald) invite their closest family and Esther’s long-time best friend Lisbeth (Vigga Bro) to their remote estate for a weekend gathering. Now stretching three generations, the family are close but bring a lot of emotional baggage to this unusual and extraordinary reunion. They include Esther’s no-nonsense eldest daughter Heidi (Paprika Steen), along with her husband Michael (Jens Albinus) and teenage son Jonathan (Oskar Saelan Halskov), and her fragile, troubled younger daughter Sanne (Danica Curcic), who brings her stoner on-off boyfriend, Dennis (Pilou Asbaek). Esther has recently been diagnosed with motor neurone disease and is in rapid decline. She would soon lose the ability to speak and experience paralysis through her body, so she has decided to commit suicide by a drug concoction and leave the world peacefully and on her own terms. Everyone has been informed already and has assembled for the weekend to say goodbye. Although everyone initially agreed to support Esther’s difficult decision, resolve starts to wane as the weekend progresses, old conflicts arise and secrets revealed.
The cracks in Sanne’s psyche are clear early on, and she reveals her intentions of stopping her mother from going through with it and expose the illegal activity. Dennis also initially seems inept to cope with Sanne’s whirlwind emotions, and Heidi is concerned that they are going to ruin their mother’s final weekend. Dennis actually turns out to be the best at engaging emotionally with the family, playing soccer with young Jonathan, and amusing Esther with his unique brand of wisdom. Heidi’s composure begins to slip away as she too begins to question the agreement. It is a fascinating study of people in an unusual state of pre-grief, devastated by what they are set to lose, but in an uncomfortable position of having to put on a brave face.
There is a wonderful montage after the Saturday night dinner as we see husbands and wives, fathers and sons, partners and old friends in intimate company, looking at old photos of themselves and sharing stories. Later in the evening the family share music – Sanne and Michael play the piano and accordion – and at the insistence of Esther, one of Dennis’ joints. For only a few hours they seem to have forgotten about what is set to transpire the next day, and celebrate Esther’s life. What is especially striking about this film is how well the cast work together, and how convincing they are as a family unit. It is never in doubt. The direction of the actors is exceptional and Nørby, Steen, Curcic and Asbaek are especially outstanding. The night interior sequences are also bathed in a comforting golden light, giving this film a warmth to match August’s care for his characters.
The topic of August’s film is euthanasia, but Silent Heart isn’t all gloom, breaking up the tragic situation and the strained relationships with well-judged humour. August never places these characters under judgement, capturing them sensitively even in their most irrational moments. Quibbles come only for the film’s final act, which seems to suffer slightly as a result of Lisbeth’s sketched character. Whether you accept all of the late twists will also depend on how involved you are with these characters. If you are, you will be incredibly moved.
By Andrew Buckle
Director: Bille August
Writer(s): Christian Torpe
Starring: Ghita Nørby, Morten Grunwald, Paprika Steen, Danica Curcic, Pilou Asbaek
Runtime: 98 minutes
Release date(s): Australia: Scandinavian Film Festival July 8-26 (Sydney)