Montreal Film Review: 'The Miracle'

Danish director Simon Staho's latest feature is an odd duck that neither quite convinces nor emotionally satisfies.

An assertive yet wobbly mix of old-fashioned love-triangle melodrama and quasi-religious parable ill suited to the gritty realism of its Dogma 95-style execution, “The Miracle” is an odd duck that neither quite convinces nor emotionally satisfies. Danish director/co-writer (with Peter Birro) Simon Staho’s latest feature harks back to Scandinavian silent cinema in its elemental conflict between devotion and passion, as a country minister’s wife finds herself overpowered by desire for a lifelong love who’s returned after decades of absence. Critical response will be mixed, offshore sales spotty.

Actually the marriage between pastor Erik (Peter Plaugborg) and local native Johanna (Sonja Richter) seems pretty passionate itself, on the evidence of their frequent couplings after having been together for many years. This, despite her paralyzed legs (from a car accident some time before they met), as well as his somewhat strange pleas to have God heal her in front of the church congregation each Sunday. They have a happy sole offspring in young Christian (William Lonstrup), and Johanna is as fulfilled teaching children’s dance classes as Erik is tending his mostly elderly flock.

Her job, however, is threatened when the owner of the building those classes are held in passes away, and the lady’s son, Jakob (Ulrich Thomsen), arrives to gruffly announce he’s tearing the place down. What’s more, Jacob turns out to have been Johanna’s teenage beau and dancing partner before her accident. Despite all vows of eternal love, they broke up over her choice of another partner in order to win a ballroom competition — a pretty silly reason, but oh well. In a huff Jakob left town, never to be heard from again until now.

Initially embittered and dismissive, he soon caves in to her entreaties, deciding to remodel rather than raze his mother’s property. It’s almost immediately clear to both parties that two decades’ separation hasn’t dimmed the spark between them; they begin meeting in secret as Erik grows more and more suspicious. When the prayed-for miracle  actually does occur — seemingly as a result of this forbidden love rather than any divine intervention —  the increasingly unstable, jealous husband snaps to become a holy terror.

Though the film takes place in 1971 (it’s presumably set as well as largely shot in Ireland, since all the leads are coiffed as redheads), life seems fairly severed from modernity in this rural hamlet, and the story feels willfully antiquated at times. (There’s even a sequence with a torch-bearing angry mob.) A bigger-than-life, more formal stylistic approach would have served the screenplay’s primitive, mythical aspects better than the handheld-camera immediacy and other naturalistic choices Staho makes, which only underline a general implausibility. Setting the tale a century or more earlier would have also helped.

Thomsen and Richter try to summon the desired star-crossed-lovers abandon, but their characters’ amour fou recklessness never transcends narrative contrivance. Plauborg (who duly won an acting prize at Montreal) fares best in an eventually frightening yet pathetic turn as an adoring spouse who loses his grip at the threat of losing his wife.

Sebastian Wintero’s lensing provides some attractive verdant-landscape shots in a presentation that arguably should have aimed for a greater lyricism throughout. Musical backing consists entirely of well-chosen classical excerpts by Arvo Part, Grieg, Messian, Mahler, Wagner, Sibelius and so forth.

Montreal Film Review: 'The Miracle'

Reviewed at Montreal World Film Festival (competing), Aug. 26, 2013. Running time: 91 MIN. Original title: "Miraklet"

Production

(Denmark-Ireland) A Zentropa Entertainments 30 and ZZ Film presentation. (International sales: TrustNordisk, Hvidovre.) Produced by Jonas Fredriksen. Executive producers, Peter Aalbaek Jensen, Peter Garde. Co-producers, Tristan Orpen Lynch, Aoife O'Sullivan Jessica Ask, Gunnar Carlsson.

Crew

Directed by Simon Staho. Screenplay, Staho, Peter Birro. Camera (color, HD), Sebastian Wintero; editor, Kasper Leick; production designer, Fiona Daly; costume designer, Kathy Strachan; set decorator, Sheelagh Power; sound (Dolby Digital), Jakob Garfield; sound designers, Rune Palving, Hans Moller; assistant director, Antony Castle; casting, Rie Hedegaard.

With

Sonja Richter, Ulrich Thomson, Peter Plaugborg, William Lonstrup, Emma Sehested Hoeg, Allan Hyde, Dorte Hojstead, Rasmus Lander.

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