More understated hagiography than objective docu, “The Rich Country” feels like a breath of fresh air considering the noxious atmosphere of U.S. political campaigns. Still, helmer Aslaug Holm’s unswerving admiration for Norway’s prime ministerial candidate Jens Stoltenberg can’t fail to increase curiosity about the complexities of issues she seems keen to soften behind the genial, intelligent and boyish charm of her subject. Pleasant but shallow, docu received the Fipresci prize at Tromso and goes out into theaters in late January, with apparently few pretensions for travel beyond Scandi territories.
A basic understanding of Norwegian politics certainly helps make sense of some of the background. Stoltenberg first rose to the post of Prime Minister in 2000, but a disastrous campaign in 2001 saw the defeat of his Labor Party, leading many to question his continuing political viability. Docu helmer Holm picks up Stoltenberg’s scent 18 months before the 2005 election, following the underdog for the next year and a half right up to his recapturing Norway’s top government post.
The source of the docu’s title, and currently the country’s biggest political hot potato, stems from Norway’s strong financial bulwark: The government-owned Petroleum Fund, founded in 1990, boasts coffers exceeding $190 billion, making some in the country eager to lie back and let the Fund dole out its largesse. What to do with all that money is one of the key differences between the parties, with Labor keen on preserving the boon intact, and those on the right urging tax breaks. (Sound familiar?)
Especially missing out on the country’s prosperity are the smaller fishing communities in the far north, where Holm finds Benedicte Tetlie, a loquacious kid who announces “everyone is born to do something.” It’s hard to mistake docu’s implicit conclusion that Stoltenberg, with his perfect politician’s face (handsome but not overly so, casual but not too much) was born to lead his nation. Holm returns to the empty fisheries of the northern coast several times, but fails to use little Benedicte as a sly commentator on the issues facing the independent fishermen.
Also missing are Stoltenberg’s wife and two kids, who presumably made it clear from the beginning they didn’t want the spotlight. After the inevitable prostitution of family members in most American campaigns, the lack of any hint of home life is refreshing, although anyone not knowing the candidate’s marital status would assume he’s a bachelor. Stoltenberg’s parents, well-known diplomats and former ministers in Norway, are, however, included in a warm scene with son Jens expertly preparing a nice dinner of whale meat.
In the end, the surprise win feels good, but with little coverage of inter-party debates, this one-sided docu basically just coasts on a likeable candidate.
Holm’s camera doesn’t so much dog Stoltenberg as glide along with him. Considering the accusations of stiffness leveled against him during his first stint as Prime Minister, his handlers obviously gave him plenty of lessons in the art of relaxation before the watchful lenses.