Tuesday, 10 May 2016

Film Review - 'Max Manus: Man of War'

Even with the wide variety of stories that have already been told, in a wide variety of different mediums, it can be difficult to truly grasp exactly how all-encompassing the two World Wars truly were. Even apart from the key figures, and events, which have already received global recognition, it seems as though every country involved has its own share of stories which, quite simply, aren't as well known. I am, for example, not ashamed to admit that I had never heard of Max Manus, or the role he played in the Norwegian resistance to Nazi occupation, before coming across this film.

Recently returned from Finland, where he fought alongside Finnish forces against the Soviet Union in the Winter War, Max Manus (Aksel Hennie) is dismayed to find that his country is now occupied by a foreign power. Having fought to help Finland maintain its own independence, he soon comes to regard his own country's surrender to Nazi invaders as a clear mark of shame - even going as far as claiming that the whole situation makes him ashamed to be Norwegian.

Max Manus is a patriot, though. He clearly loves his homeland, and is very eager to see it reclaimed from this foreign occupation. Gathering together a small group of similarly dissatisfied young man, Max sets out to do just that - forming plans gather further support as they prepare to fight back.

Unlike many of his new accomplices, Max actually has combat experience - a fact which both he, and his newly formed team, decide makes him the most qualified to lead. Combat experience doesn't necessarily translate into an ability to lead an organised resistance movement in occupied territory, of course - and, this fact becomes painfully obvious when their first efforts to produce and distribute anti-Nazi propaganda results in Max being arrested, almost immediately.

Kept under close guard in a Norwegian hospital, Max is only able to make his escape with the aid of a sympathetic nurse. From there, he is eventually able to make his way to Scotland where he is finally able to receive some proper training in the art of sabotage. While in Scotland, he is also able to reunite with his close friend, Gregers (Nicolai Cleve Broch) - and, together, they begin to form plans of leading a new team of resistance back into Norway. Believing that they will be better prepared and better supplied, this time, they return to their homeland with a new mission - the destruction of German supply ships which, if they are successful, will cripple the German war effort in other parts of the world.

Max Manus: Man of War is a very well-made, and often legitimately entertaining, war film. It is tense when it needs to be (particularly in those moments when Max's team of resistance fighters are engaged on one of their sabotage missions) - and, there are enough moments of action to keep things interesting. Most importantly, though, it is a film well-served by some genuinely great performances. This is a story that is clearly important to the people of Norway, after all - so, it makes sense that everyone involved would be entirely committed to helping bring it to life. As played by Aksel Hennie, Max Manus is a genuinely fascinating figure. He is clearly something of a flawed hero - one who has been slowly worn down by his own experiences, and who is occasionally prone to making tragic mistakes.

More often than not, real life simply doesn't have the courtesy to play out in a convenient 'three-act' structure - and, that also seems to be the case, here. Due to this, Max Manus: Man of War is a film which does, admittedly, seem to meander a bit more than what would seem necessary as it tries to cover all of the key moments in Max's mission - with its efforts to portray all of his successes and failures, and the tragic deaths of those close to him, resulting in a film which does, unfortunately, feel a bit messy, at times.

At these points, the film feels unfocused in a manner that simply wouldn't be acceptable in an entirely fictional story. Then, there are also the points in which the story being told takes an odd turn - such as the moment when Max manages to take himself out of commission, for a while, by accidentally shooting himself with a gun that he is unfamiliar with.

In both of these cases, though, it seems as though the audience will just need to accept this occasional awkwardness, and move on. It is, after all, fairly clear evidence of the film-makers' hands being tied by the need to defer to 'true events'.

Less forgivable, though, is the film's portrayal of the developing romantic relationship between Max and Tikken (Agnes Kittelson), a young woman who acts as a point of contact between Max's Norwegian resistance movement and the British. This, too, was clearly intended to mirror real life events. In the film, though, this romantic sub-plot receives so little focus that their few scenes together comes across as unconvincing.

As with any film claiming to be based on 'true events', there was always going to be some issue regarding how accurate a representation it truly was. There would be questions, for example, regarding what had been included and what had been left out - and, whether the film-makers' had allowed themselves any artistic license in their portrayal.

While the small bit of personal research I did after watching the film does seem to point toward a bit of debate over its historical accuracy, that really wasn't enough of an issue to spoil my enjoyment of the film. Max Manus: Man of War is a tense and dramatic film, dedicated to exploring a moment in history that I wasn't familiar with, beforehand. Any nit-picking to be done with regard to its historical accuracy is best left to people more familiar with the subject-matter than I am - for my part, it was simply a very entertaining film. It was also a film which inspired me to learn a bit more about actual history, afterwards - which felt like a nice bonus.

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