Rousing widescreen historical epic “Max Manus” celebrates the deeds of one of Norway’s most daring WWII-era resistance fighters. Although not as nuanced as “The Black Book” or “Flame and Citron,” this engaging second feature from “Bandidas” duo Espen Sandberg and Joachim Roenning combines artistic ambition and commercial appeal with a well-paced action-adventure approach. The most expensive Norwegian production ever, it rocketed to No. 1 on home turf, registering more than 1 million admissions in six weeks. With scenes set in Norway, Sweden, Finland and the U.K., this exciting blockbuster deserves arthouse berths abroad; fests are a given.
Manus (1914-96), a man with no formal education, led a life of derring-do that seems tailor-made for the movies, though surprisingly, he’s never been the subject of a fiction feature before. Based in part on Manus’ own autobiographical accounts of his wartime exploits, the primary action unfolds between April 9, 1940 (when Germany invaded Norway), and May 8, 1945 (when the occupation ended), although debuting scribe Thomas Nordseth-Tiller’s mostly straightforward screenplay takes some historical license. It also incorporates (and frequently flashes back to) Max’s pivotal experience as volunteer combatant in Finland’s Winter War against the Soviet Union in 1940.
Dismayed that Norway capitulated to Germany within two months and permitted the establishment of a puppet government, patriotic Max (Aksel Hennie) joins other young men in what comes to be known as the Rognes Organization. They collect weapons and create propaganda to resist the occupation and prove some Norwegians are still willing to fight.
Max confirms his reputation for fearlessness when he makes two audacious escapes from German captivity. He eventually reunites with friend Gregers Gram (Nicolai Cleve Broch) in Scotland, where they receive special training as saboteurs with the Free Norwegian Forces.
Parachuted back into their homeland in March 1943, Max and Gregers lead a mission to sink German supply ships in the heavily guarded Oslo harbor, in a stunningly staged nighttime raid that constitutes one of the film’s tensest moments. However, the “Oslo Gang’s” spectacular success leads to cruel reprisals from local Gestapo leader Sigfried Fehmer (Ken Duken), a charming, Hollywood-handsome psychopath with a specialty in torture.
The potent adversarial relationship of Max and Fehmer provides one of the screenplay’s major elements. Another is the camaraderie between Max and “the boys,” including Kolbein Lauring (Christian Rubeck), Gunnar Sonsteby (Knut Joner), Edvard Tallaksen (Mats Eldoen) and Jens Hauge (Kyrre Haugen Sydness), played to its best advantage when the men work silently together on a mission. Ironically, humorous scenes of the guys horsing around in their rare moments of ease fall flat.
The only woman with a significant role in this testosterone-fueled world is “Tikken” Lindebraekke (Agnes Kittelsen), the resistance contact at the British embassy in Stockholm. But her exact role there and her extracurricular relationship with Max feel a tad underdeveloped.
Having helmed hundreds of commercials as well as divas Penelope Cruz and Salma Hayek in “Bandidas,” young co-helmers Sandberg and Roenning don’t seem fazed by their large cast, which includes Norway’s most famous young actors plus loads of extras. They choreograph intimate, detailed sabotage sequences and large-scale crowd and battle scenes with equal aplomb.
Stars Henning and Duken play their juicy roles to the hilt, but the script doesn’t provide space for the other characters to show psychological depth.
The polished tech credits, particularly Geir Hartly Andreassen’s riveting lensing and production designer Karli Juliusson’s superb period re-creations, helped by advanced CGI technology, provide evidence the pic’s large budget was put to good effect.