Silence speaks elegant volumes this fall as Scandinavian filmmakers bring a spare touch to subjects that usually get presented by Hollywood in the-louder-the-better fashion. Spycraft, car chases and the apocalypse figure are dominant themes in award season contenders "Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy," directed by Swedish filmmaker Tomas Alfredson; "Drive," helmed by Danish director Nicolas Winding Refn; and "Melancholia," from Denmark's melancholy auteur Lars von Trier.
Like Susanne Bier, the Danish specialist in angst-fraught relationship dramas who directed last year's foreign-language Oscar winner, "In a Better World," the Northern Europeans behind these English-language features share a gift for handling deeply dysfunctional characters with dry aplomb.
"Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy" director Alfredson, who wowed critics with his stylish 2008 vampire picture "Let the Right One In," strips John le Carré's densely plotted espionage thriller to its brooding essence. "I see it as a story about loyalty and friendship with a Cold War backdrop," he says.
The saga, set in 1973, builds suspense on pregnant pauses as much as — if not more than — it does cloak-and-dagger gunplay. "In Scandinavia," Alfredson says, "silence is a part of our culture and our way of communicating. If I ask you a question and you don't answer, that is also an answer. Silence is a very useful tool for activating people's imagination: Why didn't she answer his question? Was she attentive? Is she being secretive?"
Alfredson's less-is-more aesthetic inspired Gary Oldman's award-contending turn as veteran English intelligence agent George Smiley. Flanked by a supporting cast of practiced British thespians, including 2011 Academy Award winner Colin Firth, Oldman's Smiley commands the screen simply by sitting in a chair and recollecting a distant-past encounter with his Soviet nemesis. Alfredson says, "I believe you can do theater on film. You give the actor the responsibility to paint, to give the scene its colors or the outlines. It took a brave and experienced actor like Gary to not do too much with such a still, intimate scene."
"Drive" earned Winding Refn the best director trophy at the Cannes Film Festival this spring. While American film noir typically brims with jaded banter, Ryan Gosling as a Los Angeles stunt driver enmeshed in a heist gone wrong rarely speaks for much of "Drive." Likening the actor to Charles Bronson, Winding Refn says, "Ryan has the unique ability to say a thousand words and project many emotions without saying a word. Silence is gold in 'Drive.' It's all about what you don't see, what you don't say."
Winding Refn took a cue from the Grimm Brothers while conceptualizing the film. "Nobody ever really talks in those fairy tales unless they really have something to say. The spoken word is less poetic than simply showing images of love and violence."
Northern Europe's resident malcontent Von Trier lets Wagner's music do most of the talking in his end-of-the-world meltdown "Melancholia." The gloomy Dane's most visually majestic work to date, "Melancholia" stars Kirsten Dunst as depressed bride Juliette, who wades miserably through the wedding staged at a palatial estate. Existential dread gives way to more concrete anxieties when she and sister Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg) realize a mysterious planet is making a beeline for Earth. Dunst picked up a 2011 Cannes best actress award for her unsettling performance.
Magnolia Pictures' Eamon Bowles, who acquired the film for U.S. distribution, says, " 'Melancholia' stands out in relief against nearly everything we watch today in movie theaters, which are largely commercial constructs to satisfy audience expectations. Lars is not playing by those rules."
Nor does Von Trier adhere to the "no artifice" rules of the spartan Dogma movement he co-founded in 1995. Yet for all its lush vistas and throbbing musical interludes, "Melancholia" represents a misanthropic purity of vision that connects with Von Trier's previous works.
Bowles, whose company distributed Alfredson's "Let the Right One In" and previous Winding Refn films "Bronson" and "The Pusher," notes that Nordic filmmakers characteristically favor thoughtful restraint over visceral excess. "Going back to the days of Ingmar Bergman, Scandinavian cinema has always brought a world-weary philosophical point of view to bear. Maybe it's because of the cold climes, but the temperament in many of these films is more matter-of-fact rather than overheated."
For "Tinker" director Alfredson, restraint yields cinematic treasure. "If you fill the image and you fill the soundtrack, there is nothing left for the viewer to invent. Anglo-American film people get afraid if there are components in a film that are not absolutely clear, but I believe the things a filmmaker chooses not to show can be very useful. I like to surround characters, information, sound and visuals with some space."