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Oslo- the Movie
By Elyse Sommer
Though the superb cast of the stage production has been replaced in this adaptation, they too are well chosen. That said, I can't help wishing I were writing this about a final performance of the stage production as filmed by Director Sher with special attention to enhancing the onscreen viewing experience the way Thomas Keil did for Hamilton.
I had the good fortune to see and review Oslo both in its premiere run at Lincoln Center's smaller venue and its transfer to the larger Vivian Beaumont Theater. As in his previous plays, Rogers was able to forge actual historic events into a highly original play (my review).
The details about the play's fact-based plot actually came from Sher , who happened to be friendly with Mona Juul and Terje Red-Larsen, the Norwegian couple who served as facilitators for a series of back-channel meetings for the purpose of an Israeli- Palestinian peace treaty.
Juul was a junior minister and Reed-Larsen the head of an organization that believed diplomacy would best work by combining issue-oriented discussions with strictly personal get-togethers. They persuaded her boss and his think tank to let them arrange a series of meetings between Israelis and Palestinians which they would facilitate but not insert themselves into the meet[ngs. They were also charged with keeping everything strictly unofficial and undercover.
The derring-do of these minor players in the high stakes world of international politics made Sher smell a play. Rogers proved him to be right. And, while he filled his play with characters based on more famous people than the Norwegians, they were the unsung heroes of his play and received star billing.
Since diplomacy involves more talk than action, the play about these little known negotiations and the many people involved needed three hours of talk — often more yelling than talk, but sometimes shifting to much of it escalating into yelling, or sometimes shifting to joke-telling.
Thanks to the dynamic staging, the smart script and vivid performances, those three hours flew by. Yet, I could see that a more streamlined version of the script would help to engage an audiences without the attention span of regular theatergoers. The visual tricks available to a filmmaker would compensate for the screenplay's trimming with more cinematic storytelling.
It's too bad that neither the trimmed screenplay or the directing choices have worked to the film's advantage. Sher, a much admired stage director but new to directing for the screen, has indeed made use of the stage-to-screen visual opportunities. Though some are effective, too often the newly presented scenes feel a bit too gimmicky. And, despite the shorter running time, it takes longer to become fully caught up in this version.
Sound like a total thumbs down? It isn't really.
The essential story and nuch of Rogers' pungent dialogue is still there and it still often lands with amusing awkwardmess when characters who have never met face-to-face do so. Given the latest devastating hostilities in Israel, a play championing talk over violence — even if transient as the Oslo Accords were— is all too relevant. It's just that the filmed Oslo would have had a better chance to be as thrilling as the original if Sher and Rogers had opted to give theater newbies a chance to respond to the talky but more impactful original.
Best of all, Ruth Wilson and Andrew Scott and the entire ensemble have brought potent new life to Rogers' take on that back-channel prelude to the treaty signed on the White House Lawn in 1993. The performances are snappy enough to make even the misguided new storytelling palatable.
The expanded landscape on which the six months of meetings unfold is immediately evident in the opening scenes: a flashback to the event they witnessed that made them willing to risk their careers in order to give their idea for achieving peace a try . . . interactions with her boss and others to back their plan. . . their transporting and welcoming the first participants to the Norwegian mansion where most of the meetings will play out.
Starting things off outside the play's setting actually works very well. Having the camera take us to the actual interior of the historic mansion's high-ceilinged hallway and other rooms where the meetings took place adds to the more cinematic look. If only that motivating battle a wrong turn in the road that underscores Wilson and Scott's role as the stars of this enterprise.
The cast of Israelis and Palestinians quickly expands. The discussions become more complex and volatile, making the personal meetings necessary to cool things down. Everybody does want peace but the representatives of each faction continue to differ about the legitimacy of their existence in this tiny country.
One of the meetings that needs a cool-down scene brings on a walk in the woods, a rather familiar theatrical device. While Mona and Terje were unwilling witnesses to that often repeated flashback to the disturbing battle scene, they are deliberately present here, but at a distance and silent. This hovering nearby happens at other times. It's a rather facile way to underscore their role to watch over but not participate in the discussions.
Another scene in those wintry woods has Jeff Wilbusch, the charismatic Director General of the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs Uri Savir, grab ahold of Mona for a dance. It comes out of left field and doesn't make much sense but it's fun to watch.
Sasson Gabai who was so memorable in Shtisel and The Band's Visit is again terrific as Israel's Foreign Minister Shimon Peres. The cast is too large to single out other standouts, but I've included a complete who's who in the production notes.
It's obvious that talk can do just so much and less likely than ever to result in a handshake and signed document. Even if this adaptation of the play were flawless, it might not be all starved-for-diversion viewers' must-see movie.
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Film based on Oslo the play by J. T. Rogers
Screenplay by J. T. Rogers
Directed by Bartlett Sher
Ruth Wilson as Mona Juul, a diplomat in the Norwegian Ministry of Foreign Affairs
Andrew Scott as Terje Rod-Larsen, Mona's husband and the director of the Fafo Foundation
Jeff Wilbusch as Uri Savir, the Director General of the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs
Salim Daw as Ahmed Qurei, Minister of Finance of the PLO
Waleed Zuaiter as Hassan Asfour, Qurei's associate and PLO liaison
Igal Naor as Joel Singer, legal adviser of the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs
Dov Glickman as Yair Hirschfeld, a professor of economics from the University of Haifa
Rotem Keinan as Ron Pundak, Hirschfield,'s associate and fellow Israeli professor
Itzik Cohen as Yossi Beilin, Israeli Deputy Foreign Minister
Tobias Zilliacus as Jan Egeland, Norwegian State Secretary
Sasson Gabai as Shimon Peres, Foreign Minister of the State of Israel
Karel Dobry as Johan Jorgen Holst, Norwegian Minister of Foreign Affairs
Geraldine Alexander as Toril Grandal, the housekeeper and cook at Borregaard Manor
Joachim Paul Assobck as Finn Grandal, Toril’s husband and the groundskeeper at Borregaard Manor
Composers: Zõe Keating Jeff Russo
Cinematography: Jay Robinowtz
Running time: 118 minutes
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