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27 June

Stratford Martyrs burned, 1556

On this day in 1556, one group of Christians burned another group of Christians at the stake, for being Protestants, in London, England. Eleven of them were men, two women (one of them pregnant), and all had been found guilty of heresy. Drawn from the skilled labouring classes – brewers, weaver, tailors and the like – the unlucky 13 had been brought in from the surrounding counties of Essex and Hertfordshire to London where they stood trial in an ecclesiastical court presided over by Doctor Darbyshire, representing the Bishop of London, Edmund Bonner (known as Bloody Bonner for his persecution of Protestants under the Catholic reign of Mary I of England). A crowd of 20,000 watched their execution, at which, according to John Foxe in his book The Acts and Monuments, “eleven men were tied to three stakes, and the two women loose in the midst without any stake; and so they were all burnt in one fire.”

O’Horten (2007, dir: Bent Hamer)

Here’s a lovely and offbeat film, the sort of thing that can only be made in a Protestant country, all tamped down and austere, following a dapper, well groomed 67-year-old, steady-as-she-goes, pipe-smoking train driver Odd Horten (Bård Owe) on his last day at work. Composed of often static tableaux, frequently looking like some 40-year-old Nordic furniture catalogue, O’Horten plays out through a series of small scenes set in unusual places, populated by people with characterful faces. Director Bent Hamer also made that Charles Bukowski film Factotum, and this has a similar feel – vignettes, moments, looks, shots, odds and ends gathered together until they mean something. Yes, but what happens? Not very much is the answer, as I said it’s O’Horten’s last day and the couple of strange encounters he has around it – meeting a young boy in an apartment, going for a nude swim at night, taking a drive with a man who claims to be able to see with a bag over his head – these are all emblematic of a life.

Hamer is up to something interesting and unusual, presenting a stoic, isolated man not as the flotsam of a turbid world, but as a man who has made his choices and is relatively happy to live with them. O’Horten is an individual but not the sort you usually get in films, not a guns-blazing, “I’m not going to take it any more” character. Instead, he is quietly different. Do not mistake his calm for acquiescence, the film seems to be saying, and in his own way this man, who didn’t take up skiing, he tells the baghead guy, because he didn’t have the balls, does have quite a pair – he resists, steadily, the blandishments of the mass market, the branded life. Even smoking a pipe, it’s a tiny act of odd defiance.

Can we spot the great Carl Theodor Dreyer in Hamer’s film? In the way Hamer composes shots, appreciates the still image? Maybe, though Dreyer was Danish and Hamer is Norwegian, the common link between them is Owe, who worked with Dreyer on his last film, 1964’s Gertrud. Hamer isn’t going for Dreyer’s levels of almost medieval austerity, but he is definitely angling towards it with the long takes and the fixation on the past. If Dreyer wasn’t much of a one for comedy, Hamer definitely is, though O’Horten is so bone dry that it often feels like something from another planet. The soundtrack, plinky noises played back through what sounds like a tiny transistor speaker, nudge us towards seeing it that way too, even if the visuals often seem more open to interpretation. Which brings us to the “what’s it all about” question.

I think it resists an answer – it could be a man whose life falls apart in slo-mo after he loses his job, as some suggest. But isn’t Hamer also saying exactly the opposite? Anyone else who had given his life to driving a train might be left high and dry by retirement. But O’Horten isn’t. Or is he? In spite of all the simplicity on view, it’s complicated.

Why Watch?

  • A beautifully austere film by the director of 2003’s Kitchen Stories
  • Whimsical but never cloying
  • Owe Bård’s puckish performance
  • John Christian Rosenlund’s muted cinematography

O’Horten – Watch it now at Amazon

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© Steve Morrissey 2014

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