Film Review: ‘Silent Heart’

A standard-issue tearjerker about a dying matriarch gathering her family around on the weekend she plans to off herself: the only surprise is when the script goes from merely stereotyped to spectacularly farfetched.

'Silent Heart' Review: Bille August's Euthanasia Drama Sad for the Wrong Reasons

Bille August is in one of his most productive phases but not, alas, one of his more creative ones. “Silent Heart” is a standard-issue tearjerker about a dying matriarch gathering her family around on the weekend she plans to off herself: The only surprise is when the script goes from merely stereotyped to spectacularly silly with a late revelation that would feel idiotic even in a farfetched 1940s meller. The veteran actors are like vintage wine, meaning they season the cask but can’t boost the yield. Sales have been respectable, though “Heart” is best suited to TV slots and long-haul flights.

In a picture-perfect brick house, sitting in picture-perfect isolation surrounded by a picture-perfect landscape, are Esther (Ghita Norby) and Poul (Morten Grunwald). Esther has amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, better known as ALS or Lou Gehrig’s disease, and some time earlier she convinced the family that euthanasia, rather than agonizing debilitation, was the way to go. Now it’s time, so she’s called her loved ones around to wish them goodbye on a mock-Christmas weekend several months before the holiday, since it’ll be the last chance to be together for Yuletide cheer (what a great way to kill Christmas).

Her best friend, Lisbeth (Vigga Bro), arrives, as do daughter Heidi (Paprika Steen), son-in-law Michael (Jens Albinus) and grandson Jonathan (Oskar Saelan Halskov). Esther and Poul’s other daughter, the perpetually tardy Sanne (Danica Curcic), finally turns up with her pothead on-again/off-again b.f. Dennis (Pilou Asbaek), and she’s a wreck. Heidi’s unsupportive barbs make it abundantly clear the two sisters don’t get along; the ever-controlling Heidi thinks Sanne’s tendency toward breakdowns is simply a way of shirking adulthood.

Although everyone agreed to support Esther’s decision to end things before the disease completely incapacitates her, Sanne now has second thoughts, and confides to Dennis that she plans on calling an ambulance the moment her mother takes the suicide pills. Even the irresponsible Dennis realizes this is a bad thing, and he tells Heidi, who blows a gasket and then convinces her sister that they need to let their mother do what she wants. A glimpsed tete-a-tete between Poul and Lisbeth casts doubt on even Heidi’s determination, and the two sisters begin to question whether their father’s supportive stance on the eve of his wife’s planned demise is altruistic after all.

There’s been a spate of older-couple euthanasia films, but “Silent Heart” can’t approach either “Amour” or “The Farewell Party,” being neither believably real (and therefore emotionally wrenching) or quirkily comedic with likable characters. Instead, the pic feels like a “Hallmark Hall of Fame” concoction replete with expected scene insertions: There’s something to make auds laugh  a strained pot-smoking sequence  and something to make them cry.

Christian Torpe’s script gives Heidi and Sanne plenty of character (though little dimension), and practically none at all to the others. Esther is maternal and good-natured, Jonathan confused but understanding, Dennis an immature screw-up with a good heart. Michael, Poul and Lisbeth are barely sketched out, though to be fair, there’s not room for anyone else when the sisters are in a room. Heidi’s controlling nature grates and is over-signaled, and Sanne’s fragility  she’s on mood stabilizers and was hospitalized for depression  proves equally wearying, since her personality seems to be crafted out of bullet points.

Steen won San Sebastian’s best actress prize, and while she inhabits the role, she can’t make Heidi something more than a sentimentalized idea of reality. Visuals are predictably attractive, bathed in a comforting warm light.

Film Review: ‘Silent Heart’

Reviewed at San Sebastian Festival (competing), Sept. 20, 2014. (Also in Rio de Janeiro Film Festival — World Panorama.) Running time: 98 MIN. (Original title: “Stille hjerte”)

  • Production: (Denmark) An SF Film release of an SF Film Prod. production. (International sales: LevelK, New York.) Produced by Jesper Morthorst. Executive producer, Michael Fleischer.  
  • Crew: Directed by Bille August. Screenplay, Christian Torpe. Camera (color, widescreen), Dirk Bruel; editors, Anne Osterud, Janus Billeskov Jansen; music, Annette Focks; production designer, Jette Lehmann; costume designer, Stine Gudmundsen Holmgreen; sound (5.1), Niels Arild, Jonas Langkilde; line producer, Karin Trolle; assistant director, Antony Castle; casting, Anja Philip.
  • With: Ghita Norby, Paprika Steen, Danica Curcic, Morten Grunwald, Pilou Asbaek, Jens Albinus, Vigga Bro, Oskar Saelan Halskov.