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Troubled Water

Erik Poppe (director)

By Jesse Kornbluth
Published: Sep 26, 2012
Category: Drama

Alec Baldwin says that Trine Dyrholm is “the best actress in the world.”

Michael Moore has said “Troubled Water” was the best film he saw in 2009.

Never heard of it? Well, The New York Times didn’t review it. If it played in the United States, it was a secret. The movie preview on YouTube doesn’t have subtitles — do you speak Norwegian?

On the theory that maybe three or four of you will want to see it, here goes:

“Troubled Water” starts with a theft: a stroller, with a handbag attached. Alas, there is a little boy in the stroller. He ends up missing, declared dead, and Jan Thomas Hansen (Pål Sverre Valheim Hagen) and his sidekick are convicted of murder.

Jan Thomas Hansen becomes the organist for the prison church services. When he is paroled, he drops his first name — the decade-old crime is that notorious in Norway — and gets a job as a church organist. The job comes with an apartment and a friendship with an attractive, unmarried priest. But romance is not much of a priority for him. Playing the organ is. And coming to terms.

“Is forgiveness important?” he asks the priest.

“Not very,” she says, because God forgives everything.

“Then what is important?”

“Atonement,” she says.

Well, how high a bar is that? He has never admitted that he killed the boy. He doesn’t believe in redemption, doesn’t take communion, says that when someone is dead no words can help. All he can do is play the organ — brilliantly. And with a personal touch; asked for great church music, he plays “Bridge Over Troubled Water.”

Films with symbols are obvious and clichéd. Not here. Water. The blood and body of Christ. Certain hymns. And not much talking. Watch the preview. Even without subtitles, you’ll see.

And now — an hour into the film — we get to the Danish actress, Trine Dyrholm. You may remember her as the wife and mother of In a Better World. That film won the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film. But then, honors happens often for her — whenever Dyrholm is in a film, she gets a prize. She’s the Meryl Streep of Europe. [To buy the DVD from Amazon, click here. To buy or rent the digital download, click here.]

Here Dyrholm plays a teacher. After the death of her only child, she and her husband adopt two Asian girls and forge some kind of functional home. Now her husband surprises her — he’s learned the killer of their child is living in their city, so he’s taken a job in Denmark. They’re moving soon.

But she can’t go yet. She has to know what happened — from the killer. But first she has to find him. Which she does, on a school field trip to the church.

If you have never watched a minute and a half of film without blinking, do it here. There’s no dialogue. It’s mostly a close-up of Trine Dyrholm.

I am in love with Trine Dyrholm — both the actress and her character. I don’t see how anyone could not feel that. No makeup, ravaged by grief, she is nonetheless beautiful. Beauty defined thus: you can see into her and share her struggle to keep it together.

This is heavy stuff. And in the last twenty minutes, it gets heavier. I mean, life-and-death heavy. Ultimate truth heavy. Atonement heavy. “I’m caught,” someone says at one point. And that’s true, you think, at layer after layer.

Not an easy movie to sit through, especially if you’re a parent. My wife bailed, and I don’t fault her for it. But I couldn’t turn away. These characters suffered and struggled and, in the end, got somewhere. Quite a lesson.


Trine Dyrholm began her career as a singer. She’s had a bunch of hits. I thought you might like to see her when she’s not fraught.

[Many thanks to Yvonne L.]