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Stanley Kauffmann on Films: Unflinching

Comparisons and pigeonholes are first aids for critics. Examples: "Mr. A's film treats the same theme as Mr. B's, but it doesn't [or does] surpass it." And: "Mr. A's film is one more of the line that began with Mr. B's twenty years ago." What convenient compass points such remarks provide for placing a new work, what apertures for evaluation.

But there are none such for Aberdeen (First Run). Even though comparisons and genres have been cited in some comments, they don't really register. I cannot think of another film that treats so heatedly the range of emotional possibilities between a young woman and her father. Desperately, I could reach for A Bill of Divorcement (1932), in which Katharine Hepburn made her screen debut as John Barrymore's daughter; but the father-daughter sentiments in that film, comfortably ensconced in social acceptances, have no relation to the fierce ripping of such sentiments here. Of course Aberdeen does not—could not—plumb all aspects of father-daughter possibilities, but what it does treat, it puts through several baths of acid.

The director was Hans Petter Moland, born in Norway and educated in America, who co-wrote the screenplay with Kristin Amundsen. The young woman is named Kaisa; living in London, she is prospering in her job and enjoying her life. (Our first glimpse of her is while she is having sex. It's very much to the point of her character that we never see the man or learn who he is.) She gets a phone call from her mother, Helen, who lives in Aberdeen. Helen asks Kaisa to go to Norway and bring her father—Tomas, a Norwegian—to Aberdeen.Helen and Tomas were never married, but she now hopes for Tomas's rehabilitation, in Aberdeen, from the alcoholism that saddles him. The catalyst for both mother and daughter is Helen's disclosure that she has cancer in an advanced stage. Kaisa agrees to make the trip.

Before the credits, we have seen Kaisa, as a child of about ten, running to greet her father in a rush of feeling.But she hasn't seen him much since those days. She finds him in Norway, unemployed (he has worked on oil rigs), truculent, sodden, but somehow strong, with the special pathos and irritation of an intelligent man who is a hopeless drunk. She persuades him to come along with her. From her present point of view, he is a stranger, which puts her in a double position: she must deal with a man whom she doesn't know except that she remembers him as her father. Tomas is in an equivalent position, except that his memories of the past are naturally more detailed.

The bulk of the story is their journey from Norway to Aberdeen. (The film, I should note, is in English.) This journey is not placid. Tomas, slyly and otherwise, finds ways to keep drinking. Kaisa soon reveals, when she sniffs to keep her vigor up, a considerable coke habit. The first big hassle in the trip occurs at the Norwegian airport where they are to board a plane for Aberdeen. Tomas is so soused that the receptionist will not let him board. Kaisa explodes with anger, arguing—in vain—her mother's illness. The loud dispute results in their being barred permanently from flying on that airline. The airport fracas is, perversely, a sort of bonding between father and daughter. In the car that Kaisa has rented, she and Tomas drive to a port and board a ship for England. Misadventures persist, on board and after. Anger and remorse, drunkenness and disgust, billow up and subside. Working through the story, quite unstated, is a serpentine sense that Tomas is ashamed to face Helen, and that Kaisa wants to force him to this meeting.

On an English road, headed for Scotland, their car blows a tire, and a truck driver named Clive stops to help and enters the story. In one town some well-dressed thugs attack the (by now) three of them and rob them. In Edinburgh, Kaisa sells one of her packets of coke to finance the rest of the trip. At one point Tomas feels so harassed by her that he tells her he may not even really be her father. (It turns out that years earlier Helen may have in anger said such a thing—untrue.) But the false revelation allows the coked-up and frazzled Kaisa to make a teasing attempt to seduce Tomas in the back of the car as Clive drives. Thus the film uncovers briefly a dark father-daughter secret, a tease about them that has been lurking in the back of our brains.

The deliberate discomfort of that scene, along with the proliferating tantrums and pukings and sleazes and police interventions, makes this journey a scathing pilgrimage for both father and daughter. But they reach Aberdeen. The very last sequence may seem a bit mushy—I note only that it involves a red clown nose that Tomas had given Kaisa as a child, a souvenir that she has kept on her key ring—but it is a move toward the rehabilitation for which Helen had first dispatched Kaisa, and it helps the film to fulfill its title. Aberdeen is more than the city to which the journey moves: it is the site for father and daughter of a cleansing through pain.

At any rate this is the function that the ending intends. For myself, this ending is only a completion for formality's sake, like a brief coda in music. The real being of the film is the journey, the anatomy of tensions between a father and his daughter, each with privacies of escape and fulfillment, each with self-dissatisfactions, both abutted by circumstance and imprisoned by biology. The journey is the film. Neither Kaisa nor Tomas "learns" much from the journey: they harrow their way through it as an episode in their lives. They both know what they have been through but are not transformed except by the increment of experience. The last, soft scene in Aberdeen is less a bouquet for the movie world than a brief respite for Tomas and Kaisa. Candidly—courageously, even—this film is an abrasion of audience expectation. It dares to be itself, like it or not.

The four leading actors are splendid. Charlotte Rampling, recently so fine in the French film Under the Sand, plays Helen. We never see her out of her hospital bed, and yet Rampling radiates quiet beauty. (I confess that I don't understand why she doesn't have the Scottish accent that Kaisa has.) Ian Hart gives Clive presence and strength effortlessly. He doesn't come across as consciously macho, but his alert disposition and his resourcefulness make him the person needed in the role. I haven't previously been an enthusiast for Stellan Skarsgård, but one is forced to judge an actor by the roles he gets. Here he has, in more than sheer prominence, a major role; and as the stormy, befuddled, riven Tomas, Skarsgård kept reminding me—the highest compliment I could pay a Scandinavian actor—of Max von Sydow.

A truth about Skarsgård is also true of Lena Headey, who plays Kaisa. Anyone who sees his performance and hers will be unlikely ever to forget either. Headey, lately seen in the undistinguished Onegin, plunges into this role with—oxymoron though it is—controlled abandon. Kaisa is a woman who attracts and discomforts and estranges and even amuses us, and not in any neat progressive or regressive sequence. Headey takes on the repellents in the role as well as the emotional stabs, and she is always authentic, never interested in anything but the verity of the moment. It is a star performance in a way that most starring performances avoid: she doesn't seem to give a damn whether we come away liking her or not, so long as we believe her.

The same is true of Aberdeen as a whole. Moland clearly conceived of his film as an unsparing descent into two affixed yet warring psyches, and, with an authoritative talent, he has not flinched.

This article originally ran in the September 24, 2001 issue of the magazine.