A Family (En Familie) (Pernille Fischer Christensen, 2010): Denmark

Reviewed by Richard Feilden.  Viewed at Regal Cinemas, Los Angeles Film Festival.

en familie

Film ratings tell you what you can watch based on your age.  We all, with any degree of luck, move up through the categories until everything is deemed suitable.  A Family (En Familie), directed by Pernille Fischer Christensen, should be given a different sort of rating: C – recommended for those who have survived losing someone close through cancer.  Refusing to shy away from the best and the worst that the disease can bring out in sufferers and loved ones alike, it provided me with an unexpectedly cathartic experience.  Quite simply, it is the most rewardingly and devastatingly realistic depiction of terminal cancer that I’ve seen.

It is the specificity of the observations that makes this film so powerful.  Its characters focus on the mundane minutia of everyday life, struggling to exercise control over something, anything, as their world is torn apart.  Impotent rage is flung against loved ones.  Stupid, selfish things are said; the most important words are forgotten.  It captures the uncomfortable tedium of waiting for the inevitable when all hope has passed, and the tempest of grief and guilty relief that follows.  By capturing these elements the film, for me, succeeds utterly.  Right down to the home-nurse (unsung angels with a job I would not wish on my worst enemy) leading a loved one through the ritual of dressing the deceased, a final act of care and dignity, it all rings perfectly true.  The film cries out to its audience that you are not alone; you were no better or worse than these people, than anyone else.  Without preaching or condemning, this gives it value and merit.  That it goes beyond this makes it great.

The performance of Jesper Christiansen, as they dying father to an extended family and the head of a renowned bakery, is quite astonishing.  He is completely convincing in his passion and his rage, and his ability to physically embody the ravages of the disease is astounding.  This is a performance on par with Tom Hank’s AIDS riddled lawyer in Philadelphia (a role for which he won an Oscar) and makes the film worth seeing in and of itself.

Christiansen is supported by the rest of the cast who all perform well.  None ever seem to rise to his level, but such are the extremes demanded by his role that it would be hard to shine next to him.  Lene Maria Christensen does a superb job as the apple of the dying man’s eye, fighting to make him see what is truly important.  The film is also well shot, lingering on moments of beauty and ugliness with equal candor.

Unfortunately the film is not without flaws.  A narrative line focusing on an abortion feels somewhat divorced from proceedings, pushing the film unnecessarily towards melodrama and perhaps stretching the running time a little too far.  Musical choices also occasionally feel out of place, particularly when their English lyrics jar against the Danish dialogue.  But for me these cannot diminish the power of this film.  For those of you rated ‘C’, it might well be the best film that the L.A. Film Festival has to offer this year.

Addendum – it seems the critics agree with me.  The jury has declared A Family ‘Best Narrative Film’ at the LA Film Festival for 2010.

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