What would you do for love?
This is the question that sits at the centre of Swedish writer-director Amanda Kernell’s feature film Charter. Following the story of a broken family and a mother’s desperation to repair her relationship with her two children, Charter moves from snowy northern Sweden to the sunny hills of Tenerife, driven by a well-developed and delivered narrative. This second feature film from Kernell implores you to question what it is that you would be willing to sacrifice for the people you care about.
Sparked by a distressing phone call from her young son Vincent (Troy Lundkvist), estranged mother Alice (Ane Dahl Torp) travels back to Vuollerim, a small town in Sweden and the icy home of her ex-husband and their two children. The silence in the first quarter of the film is deafening, mirroring Alice’s life without her family and creating a deeply melancholic atmosphere. The first musical score we hear in the film comes at a vital turning point in Alice’s psyche, where she realises she is set to lose custody of her children. Up until this moment, it’s clear that Alice holds some sort of belief that she still has a chance of winning them back. This moment is the first of many heart-breaking tableaus in the film. From this point we see a now unhinged Alice make the impulsive and thoroughly illegal decision to pull her son and teenage daughter Elira (Tintin Poggats Sarri) out of school to holiday in Tenerife, one of the largest of Spain’s Canary Islands.
The change of location brings a dramatic contrast in the film. In Sweden the film is tinged by blue light brought from the obvious bitter cold of the town seen through the rigidity of the characters, namely Alice who isn’t used to the heaped snow. This blue light also brings a coldness to the situation of the characters and demonstrates the isolation Alice feels from her family. When the film moves across to Spain the mood changes to hopefulness, expressed on screen through the incorporation of colour. Yellow and pink tinges move Alice away from her isolation to a place of optimism although her actions continue to reveal an intrusive desperation to please her children and regain their love.
From the first scene, you are confronted with the complexity of Alice’s character, someone whose side you want to be on but ultimately can’t. Throughout the time in Tenerife come moments of happiness between her and her children, but they are clouded by the obscure nature of the situation the three are in. When one of the happy moments occur, Alice’s desire for its continuation brings a desperation to get her version of the truth from them, having convinced herself that the children aren’t happy with their father. Alice’s repeated questioning, while irritating, also hosts a deeper sadness; the happier the moments Alice has with her children, the more she tries to fight for them. Alice gains a deeper understanding of her children especially Elira through their time in Tenerife, and ultimately realises she can’t be the mother she needs to be despite how much she is striving to regain what she lost when she chose to leave them.
The hero of the story, if there is one, is Alice’s teenage daughter, Elira, portrayed masterfully by Sarri. In the first scenes between Alice and Elira, there is a heartbreaking lack of understanding drawn from the sense of abandonment Elira feels at the hands of her mother, and Alice’s inability to comprehend the overwhelming hurt she has caused. As we move through the film, we see them begin to perceive each other in a different light and regain the relationship that had been buried through the mess of divorce. One of the most touching scenes in this film is when we see Alice confront her daughter about her mental health and for the first time see her in the position of a caring mother.
This isn’t an easy film to watch, and as is said in many such cases of family law, nobody really wins especially when there are children involved. But despite not being an easy film, Kernell has beautifully captured the pure desperation that can drive one to sacrifice everything; from the moment Alice chooses to unlawfully take her children from their father, to the moment she realises she has to let them go with him. Kernell plays with complex and difficult characters, bringing to light the devastating inner workings of a broken family and their search for resolution.
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