Last night I saw Torun Lian’s film adaptation of Knut Hamsun’s 1898 novel, Victoria.  It was actually a lot more interesting than I had expected, though perhaps still not as interesting as it should have been. The aspect that struck me the most was the setting; Lian relocates the action from Northern to Eastern Norway; the unidentified “city” of the novel becomes Kristiania (more on that later) and the countryside of Victoria’s “castle” and Johannes’s mill is a verdant, unidentified coastal idyll. Amusingly, that landscape is actually in Sweden, which was apparently the only place with a manor house that fit the bill (the exact location is Åmål, apparently, which is weird because I associate that place name with Lucas Moodysson’s Fucking Åmål…).

Ingunn Økland, one of Norway’s most respected literary and film critics, questions whether the theme of the novel adaptation can be relevant to the youth of today in Norway. Her answer is surprising–apparently only youth of immigrant origin who live under the threat of arranged marriages will be able to relate.

I et moderne Norge har den i hvert fall relevans for en stor gruppe ungdommer med bakgrunn fra land som fremdeles praktiserer arrangerte ekteskap. Var handlingen lagt til et slikt miljø, tror jeg Hamsuns såreste roman kunne fått en overraskende og frisk omdreining.

For me, that’s wrong on two counts: first, that’s a patronizing and overly generalized thing to say about immigrant culture (and do we really need another “updated” classic set in an alternate cultural milieu that the mainstream deems “backward” enough to be appropriate for the gender issues being portrayed?). Sure it may have particular relevance for girls who are forced into marriages like Victoria, but it also has relevance for people interested in the history of gender relations in the west as well. Second it’s a misreading (or at least an oversimplification) of the theme and plot. The problem for Victoria and Johannes is not that she is promised to someone else (Hamsun conveniently dispenses with the loathsome Otto in a shooting accident). The problem–as with Edvarda and Thomas in Pan–is that neither can quite bend enough on principle to accept the other. The reason it’s a tragic love story is that Johannes believes himself to be promised to the fickle Camilla, even though their “betrothal” is casual in the extreme, and that Victoria believes him. They don’t end up together and it’s their own fault. I was pleased to see that this is pretty much the director’s take too; in response to a question about the question of arranged marriage she said:

Det er ikke nødvendigvis feil, men i dette tilfellet er det én av hindringene for Johannes og Victoria. I min bearbeidelse av stoffet ligger nok hindringen i større grad inni dem selv. Og dette er også likt i dag, det er helt moderne, sier Lian.

But back to what interests me, namely the setting. There are two scenes set in Kristiania that are particularly curious. The one depicts Johannes at his open garrett window, with panoramic (computer generated) view of the Kristiania of the 1890s. There are smokestacks billowing everywhere, the royal palace glows majestically, and the entire “cauldron” of modern day Oslo is filled with buildings. But Kristiania of that day would have been ever so much smaller. I had to laugh out loud when I saw the huge, urban swathe spread out below Johannes. The association to James Ivory’s A Room with a View (1985) is unescapable.

The other scene is an extended one that was filmed in the real National Theater (constructed in 1899) vestibule. We see a number of shots from  outside the theater as well, and here Lian again resorts to computer generated images to create an 1890s appearance as we look toward the parliament or the adjacent buildings along Stortingsgate. The use of green screen is particularly obvious when Johannes is silhouetted against the outdoor view.

I loved the three young actors who starred. Jakob Oftebro, who played Johannes Møller, was totally compelling. I can only imagine, though, what my colleagues in Northern Norway are saying about the complete erasure of Northern Norway from the film.


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