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Hilma Review

Hilma Review

When I first began watching Hilma, Lasse Hallström’s biopic about revolutionary artist Hilma af Klint, I wrongly assumed that the director (best known for the likes of Dear John and Chocolat) was a woman.

My one excuse for this embarrassing slip-up is the way that Hilma treats its female characters. I’ve seen so many women on film subjected to years of pointless sexualisation, gratuitous nudity, fetishised lesbians and more, that it’s honestly hard to trust male writers and directors these days.

Yet Hilma, which Hallström wrote on top of directing, has forced me to rethink some of those biases. It’s flawed (see below) but ultimately respectful, no pandering to the “male gaze” – or to anyone else’s for that matter, unless you’re turned on by fade-in transitions and reverent aerial shots of groundbreaking abstract art. Instead this film, told primarily through the eyes of women, not only makes excellent use of the female gaze but gives that concept a whole new meaning.

Perhaps it’s this that caused the motif of eyes, and seeing, to morph into the beating heart of Hilma. We begin with the elderly Hilma staring out of a train window; then, suddenly, we cut to an extreme close-up. Two pensive, expressive eyes fill the frame as their owner counts to twenty: this is a younger and more carefree Hilma – earnestly and thoughtfully played by Tora Hallström, the director’s daughter – playing hide and seek with her beloved little sister (Emmi Tjernström) in short-lived, happier times.

Hallström and cinematographer Ragna Jorming are clearly something of a dream team, helped along by composer Jon Ekstrand’s gentle, understated score. There are some misfires – during one particularly long take, the camera moves in so many circles it almost causes motion sickness – but most of the risks pay off. No shot is carelessly chosen, whether it’s a semi-rapturous aerial shot of a finished canvas or a close-up through Hilma’s eyes of a solitary flower, or paint swirling through water, or the mottled glass surface of a lamp. Kudos also to the many picturesque shops of the Swedish landscape and, more importantly, to the many longing glances shown between two creative outsiders as they realise they’re falling in love.

As with many historical figures there’s no concrete proof that af Klint was queer but, were she alive today, there’s a good chance her identity would have fallen somewhere along the LGBTQ+ spectrum. Hallström goes with the L and sets her up with Anna Cassel (Catherine Chalk). Chalk’s strong-willed performance perfectly counterbalances Tora Hallström as the less self-assured Hilma, and the two have excellent chemistry. Notably, however, the focus is not on sex but on passionate intellectual conversations, gentle embraces, bitter arguments, and a wealth of character development between two flawed, brilliant people who deeply love but often fail to understand each other.

All of this is to be commended, but unfortunately you do have to comb through a lot of silt to find that gold. The dialogue is mostly decent but occasionally infiltrated by some very clunky writing, and at one point what should be a heart-rending scene of unimaginable loss is undercut by what can only be described as a prat-fall. (Trust me, you’ll know it when you see it.) Not to mention, the opening and closing scenes feel so stilted that they might as well have come from a bad documentary.

And finally, Rudolf Steiner (Tom Wlaschiha). Rudolf bloody Steiner. To be fair, the German philosopher’s prominence in Hilma is partly in the name of historical accuracy, as af Klint really was – for better or worse – heavily influenced by his opinions. Unfortunately, the character utterly outstays his welcome, because Hallström just can’t leave well enough alone. In fact, he almost undoes all of the good things about his portrayal of af Klint by implying that the most interesting thing about her work is what this one influential man had to say about it.

And that’s Hilma’s main problem, the thing that cuts its own legs out from under it and makes something only mildly enjoyable out of what could have been a truly beautiful, emotionally impactful film. There are far too many scenes that should have been left on the cutting room floor, to the point where knocking at least half an hour off of this film’s two-hour runtime would have vastly improved the finished product.

In short, Hallström is a good director and Hilma is a fitting tribute to af Klint’s extraordinary life and legacy. But please, for the love of God, someone get this film a better editor.


Hilma will be released in UK cinemas on 28 October 2022. Early 2023, Hilma will also be available on Viaplay UK, Viaplay’s streaming service set to launch in the UK this autumn

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