Review: ‘Through a Glass, Darkly’

A Norwegian teen suffering from a terminal illness comes to terms with her life and imminent death.

A Norwegian teen suffering from a terminal illness comes to terms with her life and imminent death via conversations with a visiting angel in “Through a Glass, Darkly,” a metaphysical drama from Danish writer-helmer Jesper W. Nielsen. Successfully opening up the philosophical dialogue format of Jostein Gaarder’s bestseller, the pic’s compassionate treatment of a difficult subject is genuinely affecting and should resonate with audiences of all ages. Smoothly crafted Scandi co-production is already a respectable performer on home turf and a worldwide kids’ fest favorite, and the fame of its source material should give it a solid afterlife in ancillary.

Thirteen-year-old Cecilie (impressive newcomer Marie Haagenrud) leaves the hospital to spend Christmas in the snow-covered Norwegian countryside. Weak, hairless and housebound, with her family anxiously hovering, she copes by writing in her diary, recalling the Spanish vacation during which she received her first kiss.

Spread throughout the film, the flashbacks to sun-drenched Spain — where a healthy-looking Cecilie ran, swam and found an innocent first love with handsome local lad Sebastian (Alex Batllori) — feel increasingly heartbreaking. They also form a visual contrast to the heroine’s current sleepless nights, during which she’s visited by Ariel (nicely played by Norse star Aksel Hennie, cast against type), a childishly curious angel, as bald as Cecilie, and wearing a similar traditionally patterned sweater, albeit in celestial white.

After Ariel demonstrates his supernatural powers via some slightly cheesy special effects, he and Cecilie share secrets about life in heaven and life on earth. His wise observations prove oddly comforting to the forlorn teen, and help adjust her attitude from fear, grief and anger to acceptance of her situation and appreciation for her family and life’s many wonders.

Nicely directed by Nielsen, the supporting cast, especially Cecilie’s parents (Frances McDormand lookalike Trine Wiggen and Mads Ousdal) and grandmother (Liv Ullmann, in her first significant role in a Norwegian film in 38 years), evince substantial warmth and welcome restraint. The scene in which the parents learn that medical science can no longer do anything for their daughter is particularly well handled.

Nielsen’s script never ignores the fact that Cecilie is a teenager and, sick or well, prone to fits of temperament. Although some viewers may be put off by Ariel’s answers to Cecilie’s transcendental questions, they come from the novel and work within the context of the film.

The fine craft package is led by the quietly spectacular widescreen lensing of Philip Ogaard (who also did remarkable things with snowy landscapes in “North” and “The Kautekeino Rebellion”). The only false note comes from Aslak Hartberg’s overly insistent score.

Sharing an English-language title with an Ingmar Bergman masterpiece may not be to the pic’s advantage, but it matches the translation title of Gaarder’s novel.

Through a Glass, Darkly



A Nordisk Filmdistribution (in Norway) release of a 4½ (Norway)/Zentropa Entertainments 5 (Denmark) production, with the support of the Norwegian Film Institute, Danish Film Institute, Nordisk Film and TV Fund. (International sales: TrustNordisk, Hvidovre, Denmark.) Produced by Turid Oversveen. Directed, written by Jesper W. Nielsen, based on the novel by Jostein Gaarder.


Camera (color, widescreen), Philip Ogaard; editor, Christoffer Heie; music, Aslak Hartberg; production designer, Harald Egede-Nissen; costume designer, Elin Langhoff; sound (Dolby), Gisele Tveito. Reviewed on DVD, Chicago, Oct. 31, 2009. (In Chicago Children's Film Festival; Giffoni Film Festival -- Sprockets.) Running time: 91 MIN.


Marie Haagenrud, Aksel Hennie, Trine Wiggen, Mads Ousdal, Liv Ullmann, Alex Batllori, Maria Sundell, Piene Gundersen. (Norwegian, English, Spanish dialogue)
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