A tremendously powerful performance from leading Danish actress Ghita Norby is at the center of this provocative drama about the fiercely protective mother of an autistic youth who suspects her son may have murdered a young girl. Doubtless, there will be debate over the legitimacy of featuring autism in this context, but those considerations aside, “A Place Nearby,” from Kaspar Rostrup, director of the well-received “Waltzing Regitze,” is sure to crop up in major slots at upcoming festivals, with solid international sales also indicated.
In a portrayal of mother love with an intensity rarely seen on the screen, Norby sheds all her remnants of elegance in a warts-and-all portrayal of a rather pathetic woman, a single mother who has devoted her life to caring for her “different” son.
In brief flashback scenes, doctors explain that Brian (played as an adult by Thure Lindhardt and as a boy by Magnus Stahl Jacobsen) is not exactly retarded, but not like other children — “He’s in his own world, as if he’s from another star,” they tell her. Over the years, Mrs. Nielsen, who runs a small general store in a provincial town, has gone to endless pains to cocoon Brian from the rest of the world.
Pic opens one sweltering summer night with an anxious Mrs. Nielsen awaiting her son’s return from his evening walk; he’s later than usual, but next day he’s safely in his bed. Later that morning the news spreads that the body of a murdered teenage girl has been found in a nearby park. Mrs. Nielsen immediately suspects her son, begins to hide potential evidence (such as the track shoes he wore) and to coach him to say he was asleep all night when the police question him.
Detective Jespersen (Frits Helmuth) is a wily old-timer who suspects Brian from the start; he doesn’t buy the theories of his colleagues that the killing was drug-related. He keeps turning up at the Nielsen home, quietly and persistently asking Brian the same questions over and over again. As the nerve-wracking heat wave continues, Mrs. Nielsen is almost beside herself with fear and anxiety, still not sure if Brian did, in fact, kill the girl, and afraid to talk to him about it.
A detached observer of his tormented neighbors is an old man known as the Baron (Henning Moritzen), who has a police record for some undefined incident related to his homosexuality. He provides a friendly ear to the frightened Brian.
“A Place Nearby” is far from being a conventional murder mystery. For one thing, the identity of the killer is really never an issue; the focus is on the pressure placed on the mother, a simple woman who’s led a difficult life and who is terrified of what may happen to her and to the son she adores.
Writer-director Rostrup successfully creates a sweaty, claustrophobic atmosphere, using extreme closeups and burnished colors to convey a feeling of heat and tension. D.p. Erik Kress does a first-rate job of creative lighting in an extremely polished production.
Norby gives perhaps her greatest performance as the formidable mother. As the tormented son, Lindhardt gives a technically clever and, in the end, moving portrayal. Moritzen (the father in “Celebration”) and Helmuth lend strong support.
Though this disturbing pic will likely raise controversy, that should not detract from a powerful and accomplished piece of work.