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The Girl with the Needle

  • Film
  • 4 out of 5 stars
  • Recommended
The Girl With the Needle
Photograph: The Match Factory

Time Out says

4 out of 5 stars

Scandi noir gets a 1910s twist in this darkly gripping Expressionist crime drama

‘A poor girl in an attic, a monster with a good heart, a cowardly prince and a villainess in a sweetshop.’ Magnus von Horn’s terrific true-crime drama is only a gingerbread house or a wolf in a shawl short of qualifying as a Grimm brothers’ story. And like a witch’s apple, it has poison inside. 

The Swedish-Polish director’s co-opting of those stock fairy-tale characters is an ingenious route into extremely dark events that took place in post-Great War Copenhagen. Like Pan’s Labyrinth with a Nordic noir twist, that hint of the fantastical makes its shocking reveal a little more palatable. Still, its young protagonist – the pretty, worldly, struggling seamstress Karoline (Godland’s Vic Carmen Sonne) – stumbles on a crime so monstrous, the director does well to find a tasteful way to depict it.

Karoline’s initial circumstances are dire: the war is drawing to a close and her husband, Peter (Besir Zeciri), has been missing for a year, presumed killed in action. (Quite who he’s been fighting for isn’t clear: another scene makes a clear point of Denmark’s wartime neutrality.) Without concrete evidence of his death, Karoline doesn’t qualify for a military pension. Then Jørgen (Joachim Fjelstrup), the owner of her factory – and the cowardly prince of this fable – offers her the kind of shoulder to lean on that results in pregnancy. Peter’s sudden return, with a facial mutilation hidden behind a mask, provides the story’s tender-hearted monster. 

Abandoning Peter, then ditched by Jørgen and left penniless, Karoline falls into the orbit of motherly confectionist Dagmar Overbye (Trine Dyrholm), who offers to find a foster home for her baby. From there, she disappears into a new kind of hell.

Like Pan’s Labyrinth with a Nordic noir twist

The excellent Sonne anchors the film with a performance full of fidgety desperation, cheerful irreverence and fragile morality. Karoline isn’t a bad person, just a survivor who happens to knock on the wrong door. 

Shot in low-contrast black and white, The Girl With the Needle is a visually striking piece of work too. It tips a hat to Fritz Lang’s M, as well as his fellow German expressionists Robert Weine and FW Murnau (there’s also reference to the Lumière brothers early silent Workers Leaving the Lumière Factory for the trainspotters in the audience). Its opening frames, a blur of disembodied faces layered to create a jumble of humanity, tee up a nightmarish vision of a post-war Europe that’s all fracture and spiritual chaos. 

With his energised 2021 breakthrough Sweat, von Horn followed a young influencer grappling with the dark side of online life. This period piece offers a very different kind of female odyssey through a lonely and forbidding world. The result is harrowing but seriously impressive. 

The Girl with the Needle premiered at the Cannes Film Festival.

Phil de Semlyen
Written by
Phil de Semlyen

Cast and crew

  • Director:Magnus von Horn
  • Screenwriter:Magnus von Horn
  • Cast:
    • Vic Carmen Sonne
    • Trine Dyrholm
    • Joachim Fjelstrup
    • Besir Zeciri
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