Tuesday, June 1, 2021

Oslo, Stage to Screen

Salim Dau and Jeff Wilbusch in Oslo..

Given the peculiarly insulated nature of theatre, despite its success on Broadway too few people are familiar with J.T. Rogers’s play Oslo, which dramatizes the story of the Oslo Peace Accords that came heartbreakingly close to bringing an end to the bloodshed between the Israelis and the Palestinians in 1993. (The play won the 2017 Tony Award.) So the HBO film version – directed, like the play, by Bartlett Sher – affords the opportunity for many more lovers of serious theatre to access what is, I believe, the best American play since Bruce Norris’s 2012 Clybourne Park. Oslo does, however, pose several daunting challenges to a filmmaker, especially one who is making his debut behind the camera. One can, as Rogers does in the screenplay, eliminate some of the more obvious theatrical touches, like the direct address to the audience and the elusive narrative structure of the first act: it begins with the allegedly accidental revelation of a secret and then flashes back to establish the necessity for the secret as well as the need to expose it and make the exposure look like an accident. (This trickery is highly pleasurable in the theatre, but on screen it would be more likely to clutter up the storytelling. Rogers was smart to get rid of it.) On the other hand, you can’t just place the actors in realist settings and pretend they’re speaking in realist prose. The language tends to be oratorical, in the manner of much historical drama: the characters often talk at each other, making political points, tossing gauntlets at each other and escalating to grandiloquent eruptions. This isn’t intended as a criticism – the dialogue is elegant and forceful and often quite beautiful. Either a director has to go for broke, throwing strict realism to the winds, or figure out how to make the language work on the screen so it doesn’t sound like posturing.

The play takes place mostly during the back-channel negotiations between the two sides hosted in the Norwegian countryside by Mona Juul, an official in the Norwegian Foreign Ministry, and her husband Terje Rød-Larsen, the director of the Fafo Institute for Applied Social Sciences – while Clinton’s U.S. is floundering badly at the highly visible official peace talks. But there’s the issue of the historical context – the ongoing hostilities between Israel and the Palestinian Liberation Organization against which the drama unfolds. Again, newsreel footage would push the work into realism unless it’s employed in a Brechtian style; staging the attacks and counterattacks is much more complicated and tends to have the same effect unless it’s deliberately and carefully non-realist. And that approach needs real filmmaking mastery to bring it off.

For roughly the first third of the movie Sher falls into so many traps that it doesn’t seem to be working at all. He hasn’t made a clear choice about style, and the actors do indeed seem to be speechifying in large, exquisite rooms (the production design is by Michael Carlin) that put quotation marks around what they’re saying – which undercuts the play’s considerable power, as well as its wit and humor. Sher is collaborating with a first-rate cinematographer, Janusz Kaminski, Steven Spielberg’s main man, but I think it’s a mistake. Kaminski’s work always imposes a physical weight on the proceedings that equates to moral weight – a boon in some of Spielberg’s movies (like Schindler’s List and War Horse) but a distraction in others (like The Terminal and Catch Me If You Can). In Oslo it’s a redundancy. Kaminski has lit the picture behind a haze that keeps telling us how important the material is. And Sher’s way of dealing with the context is to make it “cinematic.” In the opening scene of the play, explaining what motivated her and Terje to try to bring peace to two Middle Eastern countries, Mona tells a story about how, on a trip to Israel, they wandered by chance down a stray alley and ended up witnessing an armed confrontation between a Palestinian teenager and an Israeli teenager, both terrified, both caught in something beyond their control that neither wanted. (Rogers is quoting the most famous moment in Remarque’s novel All Quiet on the Western Front and the equally well-known one in Lewis Milestone’s 1930 movie version.) In the film we see what Mona saw, but it’s shot in slow motion and looks like a dream; Terje is nowhere in sight and since we don’t know how the hell she got so close to this encounter it wouldn’t occur to anyone who didn’t already know the play that it actually occurred. Mona gets to tell the story but only much later, after Sher has repeated the image.

I can’t say exactly when Oslo manages to shake off these problems but at some point, perhaps fifteen or twenty minutes before the end of the first hour (Rogers has trimmed his play down to two hours), both the intelligence and the emotions of the play break through. On this maiden voyage Sher may not have the filmmaking chops to meet the stylistic and technical challenges but he sure as hell understands the play. And in this medium new to him he’s just as expert with actors as he is when he directs on Broadway. (Just to be clear: he’s the best actor’s director working in the American theatre right now.) Salim Dau as Ahmed Qurie, known as Abu Ala, the passionate spokesman for the PLO and Waleed Zuwaiter as his comrade Hassan Asfour, the committed Marxist; Jeff Wilbusch as the Israeli Uri Savir, whose wit and humanity keep undercutting his macho self-presentation, and Igal Naor as Joel Singer, the bull-in-a-china-shop D.C.-based legal adviser to the Israeli Foreign Ministry give performances of admirable clarity, color and force. All four – especially Dau – have undeniable theatrical presence, but that’s okay. Maybe the staginess of the dialogue takes some getting used to on a screen, but you need actors who know how to shape it. The supporting actors’ roles have been pared down and a few have been taken out. But Doval’e Glickman brings a special exuberance to the part of Yair Hirschfield, one of the two economics professors who are in on the first stage of the clandestine talks; it’s Hirschfield, a man of instinctual generosity, who breaks the ice with Abu Ala on the first day by complimenting a paper he’s written and humbly suggesting Abu Ala might read one of his and offer criticism. In the play Hirschfield and Ron Pundak (Rotem Keinan in the film) are summarily dismissed from the closed meeting room in the second stage of the negotiations because they have no political qualifications. The movie leaves out this development, which is fine but a little confusing – Hirschfield and Pundak stay in the discussions but don’t contribute much, and unless I just missed them, in one scene they’re unaccountably absent.

Ruth Wilson, the co-star of the HBO series The Affair, gives a fine reading of the soulful and balanced character of Mona Juul; her work matches that of Jennifer Ehle in the New York production. I had more trouble with Andrew Scott as Terje Larsen. Scott is a marvelous actor but he’s too light in the part, and Sher seems to be trying to compensate by underlining Terje’s gaffes so that, next to his wife’s diplomatic brilliance, he comes across as almost clownish. And I think the ending isn’t as effective as it might be. We learn of the assassination of Israeli’s prime minister, Yitzhak Rabin, which in Rogers's view doomed the Oslo Accords, and then there’s a fragile note of hopefulness for the future. But the protagonists of Oslo are Uri Savir and Abu Ala, who form an improbable friendship across what seem to be uncrossable lines. The most affecting scene in both the play and the film is the one where, at the point of their most vehement dispute, they choose to go for a walk in the woods and discover unexpected common ground: they both have daughters named Maya. The play tells us, moments before the curtain falls, “To this day, Uri Savir and Ahmed Qurie, and their daughters, have never been out of touch.” This line isn't in the movie, and Oslo needs this affirmation at the end – the bond between these two courageous and radical souls that links it to the greatest of all anti-war films, Renoir’s Grand Illusion. Without it the movie drifts away.

Steve Vineberg is Distinguished Professor of the Arts and Humanities at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he teaches theatre and film. He also writes for The Threepenny Review and is the author of three books: Method Actors: Three Generations of an American Acting Style; No Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movies.


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