On July 22, 2011, far-right terrorist Anders Behring Breivik exploded a bomb outside an Oslo government building before massacring scores of young people – most, the children of politicians – on the nearby island of Utøya. Seventy-seven people died, many more wounded as Breivik launched a one-man race war on ‘Marxists, liberals and members of the elite’ he accused of ushering in a multiracial society. The event monopolised the world media for days, and then again when he used his trial to showcase his warped worldview. On paper, this harrowing story seems a perfect fit for Paul Greengrass, a filmmaker who has parlayed the horrors of 9/11 and the Troubles to such blistering effect with ‘United 93’ and ‘Bloody Sunday’. In reality, his sober, multi-stranded recreation of the atrocity and its aftermath lacks the impact of those stark masterpieces.
Beginning with Breivik (Anders Danielsen Lie) packing weapons and explosives into a van on July 21, the massacre itself is covered off in the first 30 fraught minutes. It gives the writer-director his one chance to bring that trademark vérité style to bear and he delivers a typically taut sequence. It’s every bit as hard to watch as you’d imagine, if thankfully sparing with graphic detail. As Breivik confronts a cabin-full of frightened teenagers, he cuts away, intuiting the thin line that exists between recreation and exploitation and laudably refusing to cross it. As police speedboats race towards the island, he even makes you hope against hope that the cops can make it in time to stop the killing.
From then on, ‘22 July’ feels like a slightly uneasy union of director and material. A rehabilitation story about one young survivor left with a bullet lodged dangerously in his brain, Viljar Hanssen (Jonas Strand Gravli), is bolted together with standard courtroom fare and procedural bits that’ll be familiar to anyone who’s ever watched a Nordic noir. There’s angry meetings, painful physio sessions and legal briefings. The Norwegian PM, despondent at his failure to prevent the massacre, orders an inquiry. It’s forensic (the film is a loose adaptation of journalist Asne Seierstad’s Breivik book ‘One of Us’) and told with all the proficiency you’d expect. But there’s few surprises, and even fewer opportunities for Greengrass to flex his filmmaking muscles. One chase scene, involving a suicidal Viljar tearing off on a Ski-Doo with his parents in pursuit, offers a pulse-raising, if slightly jarring gear-change.
The film’s biggest assets are its two leads. Newcomer Gravli is terrific as Viljar, communicating a complex eddy of survivor’s guilt, rage and determination, while Lie is simply chilling as the mass-murdering Breivik. To pure psychopathy, the actor adds subtle layers of arrogance, intellectual vanity and entitlement, and nails the man’s attempts to justify his acts as the first shots of a coming racial conflict. ‘I’m not a monster in a nightmare,’ he says, ‘but a soldier in a war.’ Greengrass’s heart lies in exploring the ways a nation processes such a horrific, unexpected event, but Breivik’s racist ideology also gets a comprehensive airing along the way. In such a dispassionate recreation, and at a time when so many of those odious ideas have entered the mainstream, that feels like a misjudgment. You can’t help thinking that the person happiest this film has been made is probably Breivik himself.