Insomnia (1997)

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WARNING: Review contains spoilers for this 1997 Norwegian film and the 2002 American remake.



Rating 3½



Directed by Erik Skjoldbjærg

Written by Nikolaj Fobenius and Erik Skjoldbjærg

Starring Stellan Skarsgård (Jonas Engström), Sverre Anker Ousdal (Erik Vik), Gisken Armand (Hilde Hagen), Bjørn Floberg (Jon Holt), Kristian Figenschow (Arne Zakariassen), Thor Michael Aamodt (Tom Engen), Bjørn Moan (Eilert), Maria Bonnevie (Ane), Marianne O Ulrichsen (Frøya) and Maria Mathiesen (Tanja Lorentzen)


When a teenage girl, Tanja Lorentzen, is found murdered in a small town located above the Arctic Circle in North Norway, Swedish police detective Jonas Engström and his colleague Erik Vik are sent to investigate. The world-weary Engström is unable to sleep during the midnight sun and during a bungled stakeout he shoots his partner, killing him, but attempts to cover up what happened, blaming the murder suspect, Jon Holt, a local writer of cheap crime thrillers. Holt witnesses what really happened and a game of cat and mouse develops, with the two of them setting up Tanja’s boyfriend Eilert, planting evidence to suggest that he was the killer of both victims.

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‘Insomnia’ is a 1997 Norwegian film, the debut full-length feature of its director and co-writer Erik Skjoldbjærg, who went on to make the English-language indie film ‘Prozac Nation’, which went through months of test screenings and re-edits and was finally released in 2001 to generally negative reviews.

An American remake of ‘Insomnia’, directed by Christopher Nolan and starring Al Pacino, Robin Williams and Hilary Swank, was released in 2002. That film, its location transferred to Alaska, adheres reasonably closely to the plot laid down in the original, but it does deviate in some key areas. A number of extenuating circumstances are presented to explain why Pacino’s cop, who is basically an honest man, is driven to do what he does and ultimately he is allowed redemption of sorts. Jonas Engström is a very different kind of character, colder and not intended to invoke feelings of sympathy in us.

Some of the nuances of the Norwegian film are lost in translation. It is easy to see the incongruity of Clint Eastwood’s Arizona deputy sheriff Walt Coogan when he finds himself in New York City in ‘Coogan’s Bluff’; Michael Caine’s London gangster Jack Carter stands out from the crowd when he travels up to Newcastle in ‘Get Carter’; Crocodile Dundee is instantly out of place in New York. From my stance of general ignorance about the Scandinavian countries and the complexities of Scandinavian society it is harder to pinpoint the juxtaposition between Stellan Skarsgård’s Swedish cop and the small isolated Norwegian community he is sent to, although this is clearly one of the underlying themes of the narrative.

I like the remake, which I think is a very good film, although most positive reviews of this original I have read will tell you otherwise. However, it is interesting to compare the two films. The original is much colder and brittle, a rather bleak and perplexing film which I have seen described as a kind of twisted mirror image of film noir, replacing the dark shadows of that genre with relentless pale sunshine and white fog.


Review posted 4 May 2009



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