The title is both a warning and a memorial. “22 July” might not carry as much visceral weight among American viewers as “United 93,” but it certainly will in Norway. That’s the date, just over seven years ago, when Anders Behring Breivik killed eight people in a van explosion targeting Oslo’s city center before gunning down 69 more at a summer camp on the nearby island of Utøya. If that doesn’t sound like fun subject matter for a film, it isn’t — but Paul Greengrass has a careful approach that gives voice to those who permanently lost their own.
Both a continuation of and departure from the writer-director’s signature aesthetic, the filmmaker’s latest docudrama is a movie in which Europeans speak accented English rather than their native tongue and speechify in a way their real-world counterparts likely did not. Beyond those minor transgressions, “22 July” proves an immersive look at a kind of violence that threatens to become common; Greengrass even foregoes the controversial shaky cam in favor of steadier compositions and longer takes.
Anders Danielsen Lie, so heartbreakingly good in Joachim Trier’s “Oslo, August 31st,” is at his dead-eyed best as the killer in question. With a chinstrap beard and delusions of grandeur, he’s a self-styled commander in a war against what he calls “enforced multiculturalism” and the dissolution of European identity. He wouldn’t be out of place at certain rallies or marches here in the United States, but Greengrass doesn’t go out of his way to link this tragedy to our current political climate; the connection is clear on its own.
The massacre itself is mercifully brief, taking place largely in real time over 20 or so of the film’s 143 minutes. Greengrass doesn’t belabor the point or linger on the violence; nor does he abstract it, as Gus Van Sant did in “Elephant.”
It’s never gratuitous, but at times it feels more like a for-its-own-sake reenactment than a necessary contribution toward our collective understanding. Greengrass, whose kinetic approach has long privileged you-are-there immediacy above all else, is so laser-focused on the what that, for the film’s first half, he doesn’t delve into the why.
The film finds something of a protagonist in Viljar Hanssen (Jonas Strand Gravli), a teenager who survives being shot in the head and whose recovery accounts for much of the second half. In that way “22 July” is ultimately as akin to something like “Stronger” as it is to Greengrass’ own “United 93,” expanding its focus beyond the attack to look at the physical, emotional, and national aftermath of a singular tragedy.
Though deeply felt and inspiring, this dynamic is ultimately less compelling than that of Geir Lippestad (Jon Øigarden), the attorney who feels duty-bound to represent Breivik to the best of his abilities but who clearly — and silently — detests his client. In a sense, he almost represents Greengrass’ vision of Norway in microcosm: tolerant, kind, and resolutely against the likes of Breivik. (“I feel I have lost my soul in this case,” the real Lippestad said prior to the trial. “I hope to get it back once it’s over — and that it will be in the same condition as before.”)
A country of unparalleled beauty that consistently ranks among the most peaceful in the world, the Scandinavian nation has birthed its fair share of alienated sons whose outbursts of public violence have changed its face (see also the black-metal scandals of the early ’90s, which are chronicled in the upcoming “Lords of Chaos”). “He’s kind of right, though, isn’t he?” Breivik’s mother says to Lippestad after refusing to testify on her son’s behalf in one of the film’s most telling scenes. “The way the country’s going, it’s not like it used to be.” “22 July” doesn’t hide its political underpinnings, but then, neither did Breivik — his 1,500 page manifesto, which he emailed to news outlets shortly before his killing spree, railed against the “cultural suicide” represented by immigration and multiculturalism.
Though full of anger and grief, the film is more than just a screed. Greengrass’ docu-real aesthetic doesn’t allow for grandiosity even when he gives in to more heavy-handed impulses. He’s on a soapbox at times, but his message is worth hearing.
“22 July” world premiered at the Venice Film Festival. Netflix will release it on October 10.