‘The Hanging Sun’ Review: A Dour, Carefully Generic Scandi-Noir With Few Surprises Bar the Accents

A repentant hitman hides out from his gangster father and brother in an oppressively religious Nordic island community where the sun is always up and the chips are always down.

The Hanging Sun
Courtesy of Sky Studios, Venice Film Festival

It’s kept deliberately vague where precisely Italian music-video director Francesco Carrozzini has set his feature debut, an adaption of the Jo Nesbø bestseller novel “Midnight Sun,” which closed a prestige-laden Venice Film Festival on an improbable note. One leans toward, maybe, Norway? But it could be Iceland or Greenland or any one of those far-flung, fjordy locales that usually turn out to belong to Denmark. It’s not like the language cues help: The dialogue is in English and the grand, windswept coastal landscapes are carefully scrubbed of signage that might, by so much as a single ‘ø,’ betray their provenance.

The actors’ nationalities are less use still. Headlined by Italy’s Alessandro Borghi (“The Eight Mountains”), the rest of the cast is stacked with UK talent (Charles Dance, Peter Mullan, Jessica Brown Findlay), though we do know for sure, by the way the sun never sets and the mood is set firmly to “Nordic despair,” that we’re definitely not in either of those countries. Not to worry: Even without understanding exactly where we are, “The Hanging Sun” will feel familiar as a pair of worn-in pyjamas to anyone who has switched on a TV in the last decade. Because really, we’re in Scandiland, an amalgam location of every movie and television show from the recent “Scandi-noir” wave, a place sinister with secrets, seasonal affective disorders and Sarah Lund sweaters. 

The book on which it’s based is a sequel, which accounts for the distinct “Episode 2” feel to the beginning, in which John (Borghi), a hitman for his gangster father (Mullan), is already in the throes of a Damascene conversion regarding his murderous profession. After refusing to carry out his latest slaying, then lying about it to Dad (whose gangsterism is ill-defined, mostly indicated by a penchant for chandeliers and crackly Victrola-style recordings of pre-war novelty pop), he goes on the run, pursued by his resentful adoptive brother Michael (Frederick Schmidt), who’s been ordered to bring him back into the fold. Because yes, it is with some relief we realize we’re not expected to buy the idea of Borghi, whose minimal growly dialogue does still betray a slight Italian lilt, as the blood relative of either the English Schmidt or the Scottish Mullan. In fact, his father’s clear preference for the soulfully conflicted John, his “chosen” son, over thuggish Michael, his child by birth, is one of the film’s few original flourishes.

John heads (presumably) north, stopping only when he essentially runs out of land, on an island at “the end of the world.” There, unfriendly locals live according to the patriarchal principles of the local pastor Jacob (Dance), a brimstone traditionalist given to sermons declaring, “Fear is a gift from God. We must all learn to be afraid.” Certainly, his comely daughter Lea (Brown Findlay) is frightened, though more of her abusive husband Aaron (Sam Spruell) and his heavy fists than of eternal damnation.

Quite why this capable, courageous woman has never just taken herself and her son Caleb (Raphael Vivas) out of swiping distance of her horrible hubby — and this whole godforsaken community of pious hypocrites — is one mystery the movie never solves. Perhaps she’s just been waiting for a taciturn, grizzled hunk who can give her a run for her money in both the Bad Dad and the Grecian profile departments. Seriously, as much as DP Nicolaj Bruel’s camera is fond of the area’s damply doomy vistas, it’s positively smitten with the casually mussed attractiveness of the two stars, especially as key-lit by a cold, slanting sun. 

Without much in the way of male role models, perhaps it’s no surprise that Caleb immediately takes a shine to John, despite the ex-killer introducing himself by pulling a gun on him. And this is before he’s even heard how Caleb speaks, which is with the cut-glass accent and stiff formal grammar of an elderly Victorian aristocrat. “How do you intend to nourish and hydrate yourself?” harrumphs the precocious 12-year-old once John is settled in the hunting cabin that a suspicious Lea has allowed him to squat in for a while.

Turns out Caleb has adopted these speech patterns as a trick to help him overcome a stutter, but by the time we learn this, the perky princeling persona has already settled as one of the film’s irritatingly inorganic quirks. Much like the wolf and cub John spots padding through the forest where no wolves are said to roam — which definitely Means Something, but Stefano Bises’ screenplay can never be bothered to tell us what. Or like Aaron’s twin brother (also played by Spruell), who shows up once Aaron is lost at sea to make a grabby play for his contentedly widowed sister-in-law, and whom a late, dumb narrative gotcha makes even more surplus to requirements than he first seems. 

There is little exactly wrong with the movie, which would pass the time comfortably enough were you to happen upon it on some streaming platform while waiting for the spin cycle to finish. But there’s a lot inexactly wrong with it, not least the disconcerting feeling that it’s actively erasing itself from your memory even while you’re still watching. The violence is tame, the love story disappointingly chaste, and the redemption plot entirely standard-issue. It might be set during 24-hour daylight, but there’s a low-energy listlessness about “The Hanging Sun” that makes one drowse and check one’s watch to see if it might not be way past bedtime. 

‘The Hanging Sun’ Review: A Dour, Carefully Generic Scandi-Noir With Few Surprises Bar the Accents

Reviewed at Venice Film Festival (Out of Competition — closing film), Sept. 10, 2022. Running time: 93 MIN.

  • Production: (Italy-UK) A Sky Studios presentation of a Cattleya, Grøenlandia production in co-production with Sky Studios. (World sales: NBCUniversal Global Distribution, New York City.) Producers: Riccardo Tozzi, Matteo Rovere, Giovanni Stabilini, Marco Chimenz, Francesca Longardi. Executive producers: Lorenzo De Maio, Paolo Lucarini, Jo Nesbø, Niclas Salomonsson, Arianna De Chiara, Camilla Fava Del Piano, Nils Hartmann, Sonia Rovai, Erica Negri.
  • Crew: Director: Francesco Carrozzini Screenplay: Stefano Bises, based on the novel "Midnight Sun" by Jo Nesbø. Camera: Nicolaj Bruel. Editor: Giuseppe Trepiccione. Music: Andrea Farri.
  • With: Alessandro Borghi, Jessica Brown Findlay, Sam Spruell, Frederick Schmidt, Raphael Vicas, Peter Mullan, Charles Dance.