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Sundance Film Review: ‘Sonja: The White Swan’

This chilly biopic of Hollywood legend Sonja Henie gives the Olympian three gold medals and a heart of coal.

Anne Sewitsky
Ine Marie Wilmann, Valene Kane, Eldar Skar, Anders Mordal, Pål Sverre Hagen, Aidan McArdle.

1 hour 54 minutes

When Norwegian figure skater Sonja Henie zipped into Hollywood, she was a talent the industry had never seen before, or since — a three-time Olympic ladies’ singles champion (a record she continues to hold) whose chipper, if chilly romantic comedy hits kept Twentieth Century-Fox solvent in the build-up to World War II, in part because she phoned up her pal Joseph Goebells to make sure her pictures played in Nazi Germany.

Was Henie a Nazi? No, says Anne Sewitsky’s shiny biopic “Sonja: The White Swan.” Henie was simply an opportunist, and a variety of other expletives depending on who you ask. Take, say, Fox head Darryl F. Zanuck, who here barges into Henie’s backyard to call her a “man-eating nymphomaniac.” That scene stretches credulity, but with a soundtrack that bops between ’80s rocker Billy Squier and the synthesizers that greet the snow queen’s arrival in L.A., Sewitsky isn’t aiming for staid historicism. She and lead actress Ine Marie Wilmann see Henie as an athlete raised to win at all costs, an unsympathetic heroine whose grin hid an ocean of darkness. A frosty tale of a star who was more machine than human, “Sonja: The White Swan” is, like Henie herself, brash and dazzling and hard to love.

Sonja Henie was never a nervous ingenue. She didn’t beg to be loved; she expected it. After all, between gold medals, she’d racked up 10 consecutive World Championships, and enough applause to expect that Zanuck would hand her the major studio contact that, in her eyes, she’d already earned. When Zanuck says her skating act is great, Henie beams, “I think so, too,” and then adds that Fox would be foolish not to recognize her appeal, especially since “Marlene Dietrich looks like a man.” She’d come to Hollywood to succeed, which meant gliding over every bump in her path. When her father dies, she begins to throw lavish parties. When her boyfriend cheats on her at one of those parties, she strips off her top and leaps into the swimming pool, as if skinny-dipping will distract from her pain. (It appears to work.)

Henie’s ego is lucrative, inspiring, off-putting, and ultimately self-defeating. Sewitsky (“Happy, Happy”) embraces all four reactions, challenging the audience to reckon with their own response to a woman with zero false modesty. For those who find her to be a proto-feminist icon — “Lean In” on ice — Sewitsky includes a scene where Henie strips the jewelry from her mother’s corpse to ensure she inherits every nickel, and not her feckless brother Leif (Eldar Skar). For those with an aversion to difficult females, the Teflon Wilmann keeps on smiling, oblivious to the haters. For those who just want to see Henie order a lover to lick her skates, there’s that, too.

The film doesn’t need to punish Henie for her hubris. Henie does that just fine on her own. Though after establishing how she strong-armed herself into becoming Hollywood’s highest-paid actress, the film rushes ahead 15 years to the 1950s, erasing a few significant beats and her first husband in its hurry to watch Sonja literally fall on her keister.

To fill in the narrative gaps, co-writers Mette M. Bølstad and Andreas Markusson’s script invents a drab assistant named Connie (Valene Kane), an amalgamation of several used and abused helpers, who tiptoes around giving exposition in the form of ignored advice. In Connie’s best scenes, she’s simply a weakling who gets trampled when the competitive Henie clan plays yard hockey, a foil for her boss’ platinum glow, a mouse agape before bulletproof grandeur. When Henie calls Connie a “gray mouse” to her face, she’s not even intending it to be cruel. She’s just a god observing a lesser creature. Connie is offended, and the film looks like it might finally stand up to Henie. Except Sewitsky knows the maddening Henie will never change, she’ll only get sloppy as she gradually abandons her all-white wardrobe and 9 p.m. bedtime.

Henie never worked with choreographer Busby Berkeley (that was Olympic swimmer Esther Williams), though it’s lovely to see Sewitsky adopt his aerial shots of chorines forming X’s and O’s. Later, she finds pathos in a mock home video of young Henie skating on a rough Norwegian pond for her dad’s camera. She’s determined to hold his attention, and never stopped trying to make him proud. Still, while “Sonia: The White Swan’s” aggressive aesthetics mostly belong to modern movies, not Classic Hollywood, there’s one image that captures the film: Henie in a dizzying crossfoot spin, twirling so fast it seems impossible she’ll ever stop. In that moment, she is atomic perfection. But she can’t keep it up forever.

Sundance Film Review: 'Sonja: The White Swan'

Reviewed at Dick Clark Theater, Los Angeles, Jan. 18, 2019. (In Sundance Film Festival – Premieres.) Running time: 114 MIN.

Production: (Norway) A Maipo Film presentation of an Avanti Film, Nordisk Film, Subotica co-production. (Int'l sales: TrustNordisk, Denmark.) Producers: Cornelia Boysen, Synnøve Hørsdal. Co-producers: Charlotta Denward, Lone Korslund, Tristan Lynch, Aoife O'Sullivan.

Crew: Director: Anne Sewitsky. Screenwriters: Mette Marit Bølstad, Andreas Markusson. Camera (color): Daniel Voldheim. Editors: Christoffer Heie, Martin Stoltz. Music: Ray Harman.

With: Ine Marie Wilmann, Valene Kane, Eldar Skar, Anders Mordal, Pål Sverre Hagen, Aidan McArdle.

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