Having failed to win over Hollywood with the unreleased 2001 feature “Prozac Nation,” Norwegian helmer Erik Skjoldbjaerg returns to his native soil with “An Enemy of the People,” a skilful updating of the classic Ibsen play about thwarted community activism and corporate sway. Shedding some of the sangfroid that marred even his lauded first feature, “Insomnia,” Skjoldbjaerg gets closer to his characters, although the screenplay’s exposure of unsavory elements in human nature diminishes overly warm feelings. Pic received mixed reviews locally, but smart use of the breathtaking Norwegian countryside should boost appeal to fests with a Nordic bent.
Ibsen’s hothouses of families struggling with both themselves and their communities are frequently viewed as precursors to Tennessee Williams’ more explosive battles. The connection between the two writers is nowhere more apparent than in Skjoldbjaerg’s clever adaptation, even though Williams’ style of fury and catharsis is only hinted at. Several characters who are only sketched in the play have been enlarged and given depth, while Ibsen’s sharp derision of milquetoast Marxism and lily-livered liberalism is largely erased.
Nutritionist-turned-consumer advocate Tomas Stockmann (Jorgen Langhelle) is a Michael Moore-like TV muckraker, going after corporate baddies in grandstanding style. When his producers try to influence the program’s direction, Tomas jumps ship and follows through on a dream to return to his hometown and oversee bottling the of the region’s mineral water. Brother Peter (Sven Nordin) runs the works, although it’s Tomas’ household face and name on the label.
The town overwhelmingly supports the new enterprise. Only Tomas’ wife, Katrine (Trine Wiggen), is reticent about their return, largely due to unresolved issues with her father, local farmer Morten (Per Jansen). Like the play, pic fails to explain the estrangement and, here, the reasons for a rapprochement. Trouble in town and at home starts brewing when Tomas receives lab analyses proving large amounts of toxins in the supposedly untainted water.
Peter urges his brother to suppress the damning info, but Tomas refuses to keep a lid on the news. With the locals whipped up against what they view as Tomas’ attempt to deplete their livelihoods, Peter goes on the offensive, using a popular TV talkshow as his forum.
Updating of the play works seamlessly, highlighting the timelessness of Ibsen’s themes. Both Arthur Miller and Satyajit Ray (“Ganashatru”) made their own adaptations of the work, but scripters Nikolaj Frobenius and Skjoldbjaerg succeed best in filling in the personalities, so that Tomas’ enjoyment of his media-star status creates a tension between his consumer advocacy and his affinity for demagoguery. Likewise, Katrine, with her own agenda to attend to, becomes a full person here, tough and determined and believably selfish.
Roles are handled with appropriate conviction, and young Kasper Sveen as Tomas’ son, Eilif, nicely captures the adolescent’s inability to choose between what he knows is right and a crushing desire for family harmony. Like a character itself, the mountains and fjords, beautifully lensed by Harald Paalgard, emphasize the disconnection between a countryside so pure and the poison lurking in the water supply and the community.