Lasse Hallstrom is a director who brings a sharp eye to personal relationships. For instance, What’s Eating Gilbert Grape (1993) and Chocolat (2000) are both films that take their time to investigate a family dynamic, building to a feeling of intimacy, and you get much the same kind of feeling in the best moments of his latest film, The Hypnotist. Unfortunately this emotional element is muddied by a plot that never quite ties up and a few characters who aren’t afforded the same kind of room to develop.
The film is based on the novel of the same name, written by a Swedish husband and wife team under the pseudonym Lars Kepler, and it contains every element you would expect from a Scandinavian crime drama, including snowscapes and jumpers and the occasional moment of extreme violence that takes you by surprise. All that snow has an almost soporific effect and then – bam! Out of nowhere somebody gets murdered. It’s the incongruity of it that appeals. The idea that under that soft cold blanket lurk the blackest of intentions.
Erik Maria Bark (played by Mikael Persbrandt) is a hypnotist who gets involved in a murder investigation after a teenage boy’s family are all killed, and the boy is left alive, but in a coma. What did he see? In an attempt to unlock the secrets in his brain, Bark puts him into a trance and suddenly he becomes capable of communication – and this sets Detective Joona Linna (Tobias Zilliacus) on a path of discovery that begins to involve the hypnotist more and more.
Bark’s wife (played by Lena Olin) then becomes the focus. She’s unhappy, tormented by an earlier affair Bark had, and unable to stand his sleeping pill addiction. Bark’s son is withdrawn and uncommunicative, and it doesn’t take long to establish that this is a family in crisis. It will take a terrible event closer to home before they can begin to start addressing their problems.
So what we have is a two strand story – the detective and the hypnotist. But the two strands never seem to really weave together. The emotional stuff can be hard going at times, and the plot of the murders that should pull us through never gets moving. Detective Joona Linna has very little personality, and we learn nothing about his life, just as we learn nothing that feels substantial about other key characters. Lena Olin gives a great performance as the wife, but it runs the risk of coming across as overblown and plain annoying because she’s the only one getting to reach that depth of characterisation.
Having said all that, there is a great denouement that feels like an electric shock after so much relationship angst, and it really made the most of the Swedish setting in that moment to deliver on the promise of ice-cold thrills. I felt the film might continue after that great scene and really get going, but no, it wound down and I was left feeling unsatisfied, and with more questions that weren’t going to get answered. It did leave me in the situation of wanting to read the book just to find out if that would offer a more complete experience, and would explain away the areas that troubled me.
For instance, can people in comas be hypnotised to speak? It’s a fascinating idea and reminded me of one of the three stories that appears in Roger Corman’s 1962 film Tales Of Terror. The Facts In The Case of M Valdemar gives us Basil Rathbone as a mesmerist who uses his skills on a man at the point of death. The body dies, but Rathbone keeps the soul trapped within it, unable to depart. Chilling and quite gruesome, that story comes back to me when I think of the boundaries of hypnotism. If a person in a coma can speak in such conditions, why not a person on the point of death? Or even beyond?
The Hypnotist has this great central idea with the powers of hypnotism offering much, but I felt Corman did it more justice and injected it with more interest in a quarter of the time. I will read the book, I think, just to see how it differs. But if I want to watch something scary and thrilling about a hypnotist, it will be Basil Rathbone and Roger Corman for me every time.
The Hypnotist is out on DVD and Blu-ray now.
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