SUNDANCE 2019: Sonja – The White Swan
Norwegian director Anne Sewitsky is known by fans of European cinema for her films Sykt Lykkelig and De Nærmeste, the latter of which stars Ine Marie Wilmann. Sewitsky has now re-teamed with Wilmann to tell the story of one of Norway’s most famous stars. An Olympic ice skating champion who became a Hollywood film star in the 1930s and 40s – Sonja Henie.
Charting the rise and fall of a star is standard territory for a biopic but I’m struggling to think of many that have been about women. Perhaps it is no coincidence that the first ones that come to mind are both European (French, in fact) – La Vie En Rose and Coco Before Chanel. Biopics about men (particularly musicians) are dime a dozen, so much so that they conjured up one of the best spoof movies of all time; Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story. It is refreshing, in Sonja: The White Swan to see an inversion of the tropes associated with the genre, such as party scenes which usually involve a man having champagne poured into his mouth by scantily-clad women. It is also extremely gratifying to see a portrait of a complicated, flawed, frequently selfish and narcissistic female character (it has been a strong year for this with Wildlife, Destroyer and Can You Ever Forgive Me?).
The film charts Sonja’s beginnings from a child being “encouraged” to skate by her father, to becoming an Olympic champion. She is scouted by a manager who wants her to tour the US, putting on choreographed ice shows. Sonja wants her brother Leif (Eldar Skar) to join her but he doesn’t want to leave their father’s fur shop. Sonja goes to America and achieves success, first in the touring shows, then by transitioning to Hollywood movies. The film doesn’t skate over (pun entirely intended) Sonja’s links to Hitler and Goebbels, which she leverages to get more money out of the studios. She gains a personal assistant Connie (Valene Kane) and eventually Leif does make the move to the US. Sonja invests in her brother’s real estate business, which will cause problems later down the line. As Sonja ages and the Hollywood roles dry up, she plans to put on a spectacular ice show in Rio, of all places. But with mounting debt and a drinking problem, disaster looms.
I am biased towards films set in the 1930s and 40s, but the costumes and production design here are stunning. There does seem to be an odd lack of makeup on Sonja in most of the scenes, however, something that was noticeable and jarring. The set pieces – especially a magical Hollywood musical sequence set on black ice – are impressive, on what was a tight budget. The soundtrack is an eclectic mix of modern pop and rock (including Paloma Faith), which sounds anachronistic, but mostly works. It does aid the modern, fresh feel which Sewitsky is aiming for. Wilmann gives a phenomenal performance as Sonja – showing every facet of what it took to become a rich, successful and mostly independent woman in that era. The decision to make her assistant Northern Irish (just because of the actress playing her) is slightly baffling, but Kane does a good job in the role. Instead of focusing on romance, the film examines Sonja’s close relationship with her brother Leif and how that was affected by her success. It led to bitterness and jealousy, as well as what was probably an unwise business involvement, which ended badly. This is an interesting and unusual focus for a biopic, yet another way in which this stands out from the genre.
Sonja: The White Swan is a welcome addition to biopics which focus on the career trajectories of the rich and famous. Just by the very fact that it has a female gaze on a female protagonist means that it is unusual (within this genre) and a story worth telling. It is also well made and makes surprising choices which make for a refreshing spin on well-worn tropes. It is well acted and at times, spectacular to look at. I’m not sure what kind of a release it will get in the US and UK, but it is worth seeing on a big screen for the choreographed skating numbers. An interesting biopic which doesn’t skate over what it takes to power your way to the top and should have you swanning to the cinema.