Like Clint Eastwood’s “Changeling,” Norwegian helmer Erik Poppe’s “Troubled Water” highlights two cinematic archetypes that have recently gained currency: the child murderer and the bereaved mother. But here, the two figures form equal sides of the same narrative coin in a brilliantly conceived, magisterially orchestrated drama. “Water” completes a trilogy, and if Poppe has managed to escape major international attention until now, pic’s Hamptons fest awards (it topped the Golden Starfish competition and won an audience award) may signal a sea change that could crest into arthouses here and abroad.
“Troubled Water” benefits greatly from a well-executed structural ploy in which the same story is told from two fundamentally different perspectives: The first narrative unfolds without interruption, only to be startlingly subverted by the second.
Pic opens on a theft gone wrong as two teenage kids steal a stroller, resulting in the death of a little boy. Script then skips ahead to follow one of the perpetrators, the now-adult Jan Thomas (Pal Sverre Valheim Hagen), following him upon his release from prison as he reinvents himself as Thomas, a church organist. At first defensive and withdrawn, communicating mainly through the cathedral’s magnificent pipes, he gradually comes to flourish under the romantic (if not religious) ministrations of the church’s female pastor, Anna (Ellen Dorrit Petersen). Thomas even overcomes his initial panic to return the affection of Anna’s young son, Jens (Fredrik Grondahl).
Pic then radically shifts gears to cover the same timespan from the viewpoint of the dead boy’s mother, Agnes (a magnificently unraveling Trine Dyrholm), cutting from her panicked discovery of her son’s disappearance to her present-day, reconstituted family: husband Jon (Trond Espen Seim) and two Third World orphans. Taking her class on a field trip to church, she recognizes the virtuoso organist as the killer of her child and starts to spiral out of control, impacting everyone around her. When Agnes spies Thomas with Jens, she totally freaks out.
The two strands of the story now intertwine and build to pic’s contrapuntal finale, effecting a stunning reversal of roles as Thomas and Agnes find themselves recast in each other’s past nightmares.
Helmer Poppe excels at impelling the pic inexorably forward while simultaneously leaving room for all kinds of unexpected side effects and epiphanies — the different ways Agnes’ adopted daughters, for example, react to their mother’s reawakened obsession with a long-dead sibling rival. Most memorable is a scene in which Agnes attends a dinner with her husband’s boss and his wife: Agnes begins speaking of her loss, whereupon the boss’ wife, far from being disconcerted, lets spill her own naked pain over a hopelessly drug-addicted son, leaving the two men helplessly trapped in their business suits.
Thesping is uniformly excellent and slightly offbeat. Tech credits are superb, particularly John Christian Rosenlund’s limpid widescreen lensing.