'Elling': A Gentle Kook's Tour of Norway

By Ann Hornaday
Special to The Washington Post
Friday, September 13, 2002

Meet Elling. Self-proclaimed "mama's boy," a middle-aged man who has been living in "intense twoness" with his mother until she dies suddenly. Anxious, agoraphobic and prone to vertigo, he is sent to a mental institution. Elling isn't crazy, he's just odd, and not even all that odd, just less practiced than most people in masking his idiosyncrasies. Terrified unto paralysis by the thought of engaging with people, Elling likens crossing a crowded restaurant to skiing solo to the South Pole; when someone reminds him that we only live once, he replies sincerely: "I hope so. The idea of reincarnation has been troubling me." Elling is nothing if not literal-minded. When he's asked whether the train ticket he's buying is one-way, he replies, "Is there more than one way? I'd like the quickest possible one, please."

These are just a few of the amusingly direct observations and retorts offered by the title character of "Elling," Norwegian director Petter Naess's adaptation of a novel by Ingvar Ambjornsen. The film's action turns on Elling's relationship with his hospital roommate, Kjell (Sven Nordin), and the two men's tentative reentry into Norwegian daily life, but "Elling" is less compelling in its plot than in its portraiture.

Elling, portrayed with quiet fastidiousness by Per Christian Ellefsen, is a truly singular character, one whose frailties are only slightly magnified versions of the ones that vex nearly everyone. For who, in the 3 a.m. of the soul, hasn't harbored terror at the thought of intimacy, or the longing to be a poet, or irrational love for the Norwegian Labor Party? Maybe that last one is Elling's obsession alone, but, as he explains, "Mother handled practical matters; I was in charge of ideology."

"Elling" is such a bighearted audience pleaser that to raise objections, even gently, seems churlish. But churls just want to have fun, so here goes: Because so much of "Elling" depends on Ellefsen's narration, which is taken from Ambjornsen's book, the movie succeeds more as an illustration of his sharp, understated writing than as a piece of cinema in its own right. In fact Naess is rather awkward as a filmmaker, as evinced in some obvious camera gimmicks at the beginning of the movie, some peremptory edits and an overall tendency to rush things rather than let scenes build. Then there's the perennial problem of using characters' mental and physical conditions as foils for humor or condescending moralism. Although "Elling" is far less offensive in this regard than most of its forebears, it still raises the question of whether when we chuckle at the phobias of Elling and his friend, even in recognition, it isn't just a bit patronizing. (And does the world really need yet two more naifs on a road trip, their journey set to a cheerful pop song?)

These questions shouldn't detract from the appeal of "Elling's" fantastic central character, whose bemused, self-aware voice is one to cherish. And consider: Kevin Spacey has reportedly purchased the rights to produce "Elling" stateside. If Naess's more heartwarming flourishes strike some viewers as gratuitously sentimental, just wait to see how thick Hollywood can pile it on.

ELLING (R, 95 minutes) Contains profanity and some sexual content. In Norwegian with subtitles. At Landmark Theatres Bethesda Row, Cinema Arts Theatre and Cineplex Odeon Shirlington 7.

© 2002 The Washington Post Company