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Max Manus: Man Of War
cast: Aksel Hennie, Ken Duken, and Agnes Kittelsen

directors: Joachim Rønning, Espen Sandberg

113 minutes (15) 2008
widescreen ratio 2.35:1
Revolver DVD Region 2 retail
[released 15 June]

RATING: 8/10
reviewed by Richard Bowden
The eponymous hero of Max Manus was one of the more notable Norwegian resistance fighters in World War II, operating out of Oslo. After the fighting stopped he survived quietly in business until 1996. He's a figure undoubtedly still generating national pride, which perhaps explains the high praise accorded the movie from local sources. That's not to say this is a bad film by any means, but ultimately Manus' biographical wartime experiences, at least as translated to screen, play out as something of a Boy's Own adventure rather than ruthlessly honest warts-and-all biopic, despite the hero's final drunken introspection and occasional doubts. It's a film where the participant's have-a-go attitude and laddish enthusiasm for adventure keeps the action flowing smoothly from one escapade to another, with courage under duress, noble sacrifices, love interest and final victory almost a given.

As a portrait of continental wartime resistance shown through the increasing travails and vicissitudes of a group it belongs in the same category as the recent Female Agents (aka: Les Femmes des Ombres, 2008), Verhoeven's Black Book (aka: Zwartboek, 2006), or further back, the Dutch director's Soldier Of Orange (aka: Soldaat van Oranje, 1977). Incidentally, the latter also includes a scene where the hero meets royalty as a moment of great pride, but in place of Manus' relatively black and white view of events it offers a narrative altogether more complex and ironic, a world where loyalties are far more confused. Soldier Of Orange and Black Book both show both good and traitorous amongst the occupied - characters perhaps engendered by Verhoeven's presence as a child during the troubled times it represents. Even The Heroes Of Telemark (1965), Anthony Mann's snowbound film about the Norwegian resistance, featured a traitor or two as well as emphasising the painful, but necessary sacrifice of civilians. Those behind Max Manus are from a different generation presumably with no imperative to draw out such contradictory truths, although danger still lurks everywhere.

Revisionism, for the sake of it, is not the only way to make a good war film of course. One of the more interesting things about Max Manus is that it sandwiches the main action, set amongst the Norwegian resistance, between scenes of the hero fighting earlier as a soldier - one action in particular, a short, bloody encounter fought out in 1940 against the Soviets, before he was fighting back in Oslo. Perhaps intended to contrast the 'clean', if nervously exhausting, war on the front with the shadowy deceptions and suspense necessary elsewhere in Manus' career, these moments also serve to remind us of the type of the hero Manus was, in his own way, before fighting the Nazi occupation back at home. This is useful as, when we first see Manus in action away from such brutal certitudes of combat, his actions against the occupying forces are almost amateurish - initially working on an underground newspaper, posting flyers and plotting ludicrous assassination attempts - all with little professionalism, a fact noted by more experienced resistance fighters. Gradually however he makes his mark, notably with one daring escape from a hotel window for which he gains a small, slightly humorous reputation.

Using an escape route via Sweden, he find himself in Scotland, part of the first Norwegian volunteer force of saboteurs, being given his first assignment, now better trained and equipped when sent back home on assignment. Norway is now occupied, run by a puppet government, and something has to be done. Soon our hero is blowing up ships in Oslo harbour with limpet mines, dodging the efforts of the determinedly adversarial local Nazi Gestapo commander Fehmer (an intense performance by Ken Duken, incidentally, which at times reminds one by Ray Liotta) in locating him, as well as resolving some growing romantic issues of his own. In contrast to the earlier combat scenes it's noticeable that Manus is now more assured and calm as a fighter; in one notable moment, which might have escaped from a James Bond movie, he fires backwards at his enemies with a machine gun while escaping on a motorbike. Elsewhere the action and suspense are more convincing - including a moment when the hero accidentally shoots himself - presumably staged around documented true events. The hero's chief romantic interest is 'Tikken' Lindebraekke (Agnes Kittelsen), the resistance contact at the British embassy in Stockholm, but here emotions remain somewhat enigmatic and, to its credit, the film avoids any stereotypical resolution to their mounting tension.

Max Manus is staged with a confidence and with assured flow by its co-directors, and this, the most expensive Norwegian production to date is highly engaging. Adding considerably to this is the performance by Aksel Hennie as the hero; Hennie makes of him a very likeable character, with convincing weaknesses and belief in his own mortality - a trait considerably humanising what could easily just become a nationalistic action figure. Towards the close of the movie, peace newly restored, this introspection comes to the fore as the surviving hero ponders his own moral culpability - even if the smile breaking out at the end of Max Manus, for this viewer at least, is less complex by way of implication than that which concludes, say, Once Upon A Time In America.
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