Rotterdam Films

Rijneke & van Leeuwaarden

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A Letter from Helga selected for Seattle International Film Festival 22 May 2023

May 18, 2023

The lives of couples—much like the covers of books—can be hard to judge. In Ása Helga Hjörleifsdóttir’s latest film about misbegotten love in 1940s Iceland, the four central characters appear to be perfect matches. Sheep farmer Bjarni (Thor Kristjansson), who’s tilled the same land for nine generations, and his beautiful wife Unnur (Anita Briem) outwardly live an idyllic life on the island’s rugged western fjords. The same is seemingly true at a neighboring farm, where Helga (Hera Hilmar) and her husband Hallgrímur (Björn Thors) raise their two lovely children. Internally, though, their lives are hollowed out by disappointment. Helga is a lonely aspiring poet who chafes at her husband’s many travels, some of which are not made alone. Bjarni and Unnur also feel a shared emptiness, caused by an unspoken tragedy. But when Bjarni and Helga both attend a literature reading in town, they are undeniably drawn to each other. As their fervent affair secretly intensifies, Helga wants Bjarni to flee with her to Reykjavík to begin a new life, but he feels obligated to remain at his family farm with Unnur despite their misery. Decades later, Bjarni finally reads a letter Helga had written to him years before that he never opened out of fear for what it might mean. Throughout the barely restrained passion of the tale, we hear distant rumbles of the world at war just over the horizon, adding to the lovers’ inescapable tension. Cinematographer Jasper Wolf also makes the jagged cliffs, rippling fields, and thundering surf of Iceland a secondary character, echoing their intimate turmoil. Hjörleifsdóttir’s poignant adaptation of Bergsveinn Birgisson’s novella churns with ardor, guilt, and regret about choices made and paths left unexplored.

—Randy Woods

Source: A Letter to Helga selected for Seattle International Film Festival 22 May 2023

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