Dispatch from Tromsø Film Fest: ‘A Letter from Helga’ and the Literature of Love

Powered by his love of film, Rahul Desai braves the teeth-chattering Norwegian cold to write about all he’s watching at TIFF
Dispatch from Tromsø Film Fest: ‘A Letter from Helga’ and the Literature of Love

Given that Icelandic writer-director Asa Hjorleifsdottir’s A Letter from Helga is based on a sprawling novel (by Bergsveinn Birgisson), it’s fitting that the lyrical love story it tells is between two tragically different readers. Helga, a young mother and sheep farmer, is the sort of reader with such an idealistic passion for literature that she speaks and feels in verse. Her emotions are book-sized. She lives in chapters. She looks and behaves – those shy glances, the hopeful eyes, the leaps of faith – like a character in a story. She once married her husband – a man with no time for the written word – in pursuit of a life-long adventure. But that never happened, and now her reality has been hijacked by the language of fiction. She reads so that she can dream beyond their remote fjord in 1940s’ Iceland. And there’s Bjarni, her rugged neighbour and popular farmhand, and one of the dozen members of their little book club. Bjarni reads to find newer purposes and ways of living. He reads to compose his loyalty to his homeland, and to live different dreams within his reality on the fjord. His wife is grieving a miscarriage, and Bjarni loses himself in words to seek the engagement he deserves. 

A Letter from Helga is perceptive in its reading of their romance. The two don't gravitate towards one another like most like-minded characters tend to. Their coupling is, in fact, triggered by petty town gossip. Someone sees them having a harmless chat by the sea, and that's that. The tension created by these empty rumours is, ironically, what unites them. Until then, Helga and Bjarni lived next to each other without quite noticing each other. So, in a way, they find one another because others in the community are bored and don't read. It's fiction that makes sparks fly. It’s friction that makes their fates collide. When Bjarni goes to help her with her sheep, she brings it up and they gently mock the townspeople. But not once do they scoff at the prospect of having an affair. It's almost like they suddenly see what the rest do; they stay careful with their words. Even after their first roll in the hay (literally), Helga and Bjarni communicate in subtext – explicitly asking each other what they lack in their respective marriages – because they are so conditioned to the emotional fullness of literature. They aren't just exchanging dialogue but also the author's thoughts and descriptions between the dialogue. 

You'd think a shared affection for books – especially in a land of farming and rural minds – is a recipe for readymade soulmates. But there's a lovely moment midway through the film that doesn't shatter this illusion so much as poetically dismantle it. In a book-reading session, Helga expects Bjarni to offer the most romantic interpretation of a passage she chooses. But to her surprise, and eventual heartbreak, another unassuming man in the group offers that poignant answer she hoped to hear. Bjarni instead interprets it in a manner that reveals his own limitations, like a right-wing intellectual trapped by the smallness of (be)longing. Her face falls, and it's at this moment that Helga understands that reading has created and ruined them at once. Her escape is different from his. He is not like her husband, but he is not like her either. She is willing to leave everything and move to Reykjavik with him, but Bjarni is not as lofty and free-spirited as she imagined. He doesn't have the courage to walk the talk. He wants everything – a wife who doesn't know but knows, a lover who makes him feel alive, a village who accepts their careless whispers, a half-future and illicit companionship, a sense of zest without the responsibility that comes with it.

The decay of their story is handled with narrative flair and sensitivity. The music is playful and haunting in turns, seamlessly switching between the stages of adult infatuation. The cinematography of the fjord evokes the themes of The Banshees of Inisherin (2022), where the illusion of the mainland and an invisible war slowly infect the mundanity of the island. All through, two souls find themselves suspended between history and memory. The baton is passed between their lives, and Bjarni seems to be stuck in a reality that wasn't supposed to be the one we see. He quotes a book when Helga confronts him in a crisis, almost as if he's in love with the idea of their story and its forbidden nature rather than a person. "You're in love with your own suffering," he later tells his wife with great articulation, resenting her for being the kindest version of difficult, but also resenting himself for not being able to uproot himself from his warped notions of tradition. 

The performances define the adaptation. Thor Kristjansson looks a lot like the impossibly handsome Chris Hemsworth (Thor himself), but he infuses Bjarni with a sort of wasteland pain that brings to mind Andrew Buchan’s grieving-father act in Broadchurch. It’s a deeply felt and sharply calculated turn, as a man who can’t seem to fathom the void between who he is and who he was capable of being. Anita Briem, as Bjarni’s wife Unnur, has possibly the most complicated role in the film; she lends the character a rare dignity and calm that, in a parallel film, might have made for a fine unrequited love story. Most of all, Hera Hilmar is wonderfully tender and restless as Helga, a woman who is perhaps using true love as a way out of a small existence. Helga and Bjarni trusted in literature to bind their torn pages together, yet their conflict is rooted in the inability to extend words into gestures. They’re a bit like the central couple of Normal People: A pair of almosts parading as a pair of always. The conflict is also derived from their misfortune of knowing, from all those books, the sort of life that could have been lived. Eventually, it’s a letter that completes the circle. A letter that demands precisely one kind of reader – a reader who has loved and lived.

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