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Oslo movie review: Ruth Wilson, Andrew Scott's drama is a timely but intrinsically partial account of history

Ruth Wilson. Larry D Horricks/HBO

Oslo believes it is empathetic and balanced (which is questionable enough), but its skewed scales are essentially a consequence of an inbuilt Hollywood gaze.

With great timing comes great responsibility. Based on JT Rogers’ award-winning play of the same name, Oslo is a dramatic account of the secret back-channel peace negotiations between the Israeli government and the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) in 1993. The Bartlett Sher-directed film – which chronicles the first face-to-face attempt between both sides, the building bricks of what was intended to be a permanent resolution to a generations-long conflict – comes in a year that has seen Gaza burn with renewed bloodshed. For several nations with no direct connection to the Middle East, Western news coverage has been the only legitimate window into the violence. And more notably, the politics behind the violence. But more on that later. 

The stage-to-screen “peg” of Oslo concerns not only the verbose nature of a script composed entirely of closed-door meetings but also the device that the two Nobel Peace Prize-winning leaders – Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat – are never seen in the film. Oslo instead brings into focus the unheralded roles of Norwegian diplomat Mona Juul (Ruth Wilson) and her husband, sociologist and Fafo Foundation director Terje Rød-Larsen (hot priest-turned-hot-peace-broker Andrew Scott). The European couple supervise the deal with headmasterly precision, bringing to mind the underdog efforts of Tom Hanks’ Bridge of Spies character James Donovan: the unglamorous American lawyer who orchestrates the titular spy swap against the clock of history. While a Clinton-powered US government sponsors an official negotiation channel at a London hotel in Oslo, Mona and Terje are unlikely parallel brokers spurred on by a near-fatal visit to Israel-occupied Gaza. 

Oslo movie review Ruth Wilson Andrew Scotts drama is a timely but intrinsically partial account of history

Ruth Wilson and Andrew Scott. Larry D Horricks/HBO

The odds they’re up against are outlined early. Arafat has sent PLO Finance Minister Ahmed Qurei (Salim Daw) and his hot-headed aide Hassan (Waleed Zuaiter), while Israel’s obsession with protocol leads to the assigning of a lowly economics professor (Dov Glickman) and his associate (Rotem Keinan). The couple’s task is not just limited to attracting the high-ranking politicians – the Norwegian government, too, is in the dark about the risky but potentially world-changing ‘heist’. I like the simplicity at the core of the premise, based on what Terje calls “intimate discussions between people, not grand statements by governments”. As a result, the film’s expository tone is bereft of the pompous self-importance and technicalities that tend to define such classified meetings. On the contrary, it holds the emotional clarity of a high-school debate that, unlike official conferences, can be entertaining as well as enlightening. There is plenty of passion and rage, male egos butting against one another, as well as disarming moments of behavioural humour. For instance, a certain Johnnie Walker acts as a social lubricant, and at one point, the serving of a special dessert immediately softens the flaring tempers in the room – evoking the sight of unruly children being soothed by the promise of their favourite toy. Hassan resists the ice-breaking and, during an alcohol-fuelled nostalgia fest, dismisses the concept of family as a “petty bourgeois construct”. When the volatile men agree on something, it feels strangely uplifting, and, as a viewer, one can’t help but root for them to impress one another. A gesture as basic as a handshake then becomes a romantic release.

Oslo movie review Ruth Wilson Andrew Scotts drama is a timely but intrinsically partial account of history

Waleed Zuaiter and Salim Daw. Larry D Horricks/HBO

Given that Oslo is adapted from a celebrated Broadway play, it does well to update the visual language of a chamber drama. Early on, a melancholic score underlines the montage of Terje driving the guests from the airport across the picturesque Norwegian wilderness. The aesthetic isn’t random. Both the Palestinians and the Israelis barely allow themselves a glimpse of the serene countryside, almost as though the casual freedom of the environment might diminish – or mock – their respect and battle for land. There’s an optical arc to the meetings too. The first one does not show the men at work, choosing instead to reveal them outside the debate room at dinner and drinks. This familiarises the viewer with the humans behind the diplomats, before the second and third meetings flip the template and stay rooted inside the intense room. The title design of the film, too, is suggestive. The camera rises up from Terje walking through the snaking lanes of Jerusalem’s Old City to reveal an aerial view of the Al-Aqsa mosque – incidentally a centre of dispute today – with the word “Oslo” fading into the clear sky. 

But despite its crafty control and performances, something about Oslo just doesn’t sit right. The film, like its Norwegian protagonists, operates as a diplomat of its own accord. It strives to present an objective view of a traditional conflict – which sounds honourable on paper, especially considering the ‘outsider’ status of the Norwegians. However, subject to the dispute at hand, a neutral stance can often amount to choosing a side. Framing a film like this in isolation – where the circumstances of the PLO rebellion are rarely addressed under the pretext of mutual progress – belies the sense of humanity the story seems to see in its characters. It brings to mind another Steven Spielberg film, Munich, which was at best a prolonged portrait of Jewish guilt hidden beneath the slick exterior of an Israeli-retaliation thriller. Spielberg, a legendary Jewish artist himself, is incidentally one of the executive producers of Oslo. While Spielberg’s artistry has illuminated the right side of history through holocaust epics, his blinkered view of this particular conflict has less to do with his own cultural heritage than with the blatant Americanism driving his legacy. Oslo believes it is empathetic and balanced (which is questionable enough), but its skewed scales are essentially a consequence of an inbuilt Hollywood gaze. 

Oslo movie review Ruth Wilson Andrew Scotts drama is a timely but intrinsically partial account of history

Salim Daw, Andrew Scott, Ruth Wilson, Jeff Wilbusch, Rotem Keinan. Larry D Horricks/HBO

For example, the Palestinian diplomats appear as caricatures – nationalistic, sentimental, bumpkin-ish, comically stern men – not unlike the way Adolf Hitler is gloriously appropriated in Western movies. They seem to fit the idea of a people rather than be real people. The Israelis on the other hand are the more even-headed and “intellectual” of the lot, even while Uri Savir, the young Director General of Foreign Affairs, is presented as an eccentric Bond villain. Eventually, the film also veers towards the physical perspective of the Israelis. A night-long phone call from Foreign Minister Yossi Beilin’s study decides the fate of the peace treaty, though it can be argued that the camera is likely sticking to where the Norwegians are – in Oslo’s Royal Palace with a visiting Israeli contingent, and not in faraway Tunisia with an exiled Yasser Arafat. Still, it’s hard to escape the feeling that the Israeli word seems to be the final word on the Declaration of Principles document.

The Hollywood prism extends beyond the Middle Eastern slant. I have no problem with the factual accuracy of white saviours driving the plot, but it’s the storytelling that reeks of moral superiority. The central couple’s awakening is undeniably noble but also desperately white: Mona gets sepia-toned nightmares of their trip. The palette goes borderline-yellow and dusty – like a Michael Bay movie in South Asia or Miami – when Terje dines with the Israelis in Jerusalem. Not to mention one of the opening shots, which shows a yellow-coated Mona walking in a sea of black winter coats – a nod perhaps to Spielberg’s iconic Schindler’s List image of the red-coated little girl in an ocean of monochromatic darkness. Mona’s flashbacks, too, feature crossfire dotted by Palestinian flags and aggressions in the West Bank. Which brings me back to the international news coverage of the Middle East in 2021. Oslo looks like an unwitting product of the partisan reportage: the kind that subconsciously phrases Israeli action as Palestinian passiveness at the top of New York newspaper pages. There is irony to be found in the fact that the Americans are the invisible bullies of this movie – but its Western righteousness is omnipresent. 

An early scene has Mona swearing her husband to utmost neutrality. She reminds him that they are simply mediators who cannot interfere, irrespective of their personal bend. When one of the participants demands to know what he should do after hitting a roadblock, Terje is instinctively about to advise him, before Mona shuts her husband up. The implication, of course, is that Terje nurses an opinion – a distinctly human trait that the American film pretends to eschew in favour of ‘equal footing’. We all know how that goes.


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