“This is my story as I remember it,” reads an opening title card for “Hope,” and that in itself justifies the film’s title. A Norwegian drama currently playing as a virtual premiere at the Coolidge Corner and Brattle theaters, the movie fictionalizes writer-director Maria Sødahl’s experiences after she was informed she had an incurable brain tumor and was given months to live. Rather than focusing on one woman’s struggle, though, this warm, insightful, ferociously well-acted movie pulls her entire family into its embrace, with her longtime partner at the center of the scrum.
When “Hope” opens, the relationship of Anja (Andrea Bræn Hovig) and Tomas (Stellan Skarsgård) is running on fumes. Twenty years earlier, Tomas left his first wife for the younger Anja and, while they never married, ultimately melded their families: his three older children and the younger three the couple had together. It’s a fractious, lively household we wander into, but at its core are two people ready to call it a day.
But Anja’s diagnosis, and the wild extremes of emotions she undergoes, does something odd: It rekindles the embers. The process is slow and at times torturous. Anja has lost faith in the distant Tomas’s capabilities and early on she cruelly advises him to find someone new after she’s gone, so the kids will be properly cared for. As she whipsaws from the steroids the doctors prescribe to control the tumor’s growth, we watch Tomas become more sure and more secure in his ability to catch her wherever she falls. One of the side effects of Anja’s illness is a blurring of her vision; ironically, the two come to see each other more clearly than ever.
Much of the worry in the first third of “Hope” comes from when and how they’ll tell the children. (It was my concern as well; as someone who lost a parent to cancer in childhood, I’m skittish about the heavy-handed ways the movies often dramatize such scenes.) But the strength of the film lies in the strength of this family, and the scene where the kids take in the news, from the 10-year-old Isak (Daniel Storm Forthun Sanbye) to the stroppy 16-year-old Julie (Ellie Rhiannon Müller Osbourne) to Tomas’s grown trio, feels honest, hard, and true.
From there “Hope” radiates out to friends and family: Anja’s gentle academic father (Einar Økland), her longtime best friend (Gjertrud Jynge), colleagues and co-workers. The film takes place over a week and a half of the Christmas holidays, each day a new crisis and a new set of decisions, and by the time Tomas and Anja decide to finally get married on New Year’s Day — her birthday and the day before her surgery — it feels as though they’re being supported by all of Oslo and everyone in the audience.
Writer-director Sødahl expertly balances the sentimental and the acerbic, the grave and the altar. But “Hope” lives or dies on its central performances, and they are perfectly realized. Hovig especially calls on primal wells of feeling as Anja grieves, rages, calculates, cowers, and dares herself to trust — it’s a monumental piece of work, all the more affecting for remaining so human. Skarsgård, familiar to American audiences from “Good Will Hunting,” “Mamma Mia!,” “The Avengers,” and plenty more, takes the opportunity of a co-lead role to work in a smaller register rather than a larger one. His character is a man who has woken from a work-obsessed life to feel shame at his own (in)actions and awe at his partner’s bravery in facing the unknown; it’s a beautifully reactive performance.
Tomas becomes Anja’s spotter as she tumbles through the holidays, and his steadiness becomes the movie’s anchor, surprising Anja and their friends but most of all himself. The title refers of course to the possibility Anja holds out to her family and herself that she’ll survive her ordeal, but Sødahl wants to apply the thought not just to life’s second chances but love’s. The movie offers hope to its characters but, even more affectingly, to us.
Written and directed by Maria Sødahl. Starring Andrea Bræn Hovig, Stellan Skarsgård. Available for virtual screening via the Coolidge Corner and the Brattle. In Norwegian, with subtitles. 125 minutes. Unrated (as R: middle-aged nudity and sex, medical realities, language).