Review: Thale

Apart from offering a number of puns related to the film’s title, Thale is perhaps this year’s most original and unusual fantasy film.

The first wave of Norwegian horror films, in the early and mid 00s, were copies of American slashers. I guess that is how you introduce a new genre to local audiences; by copying something they already know. Now, a few years after the first wave, original and locally anchored horror and fantasy films are making their way to audiences on a regular basis. Troll Hunter and Marianne was first, and soon we have Wither and Mara to enjoy. But now it’s all about Thale, the titular character in an indie production that received a lot of attention even before its release.

In the film, two crime scene cleaners, Elvis and Leo, are sent to a cabin in the woods where they routinely sweep up brains and blood from the floor. By accident they find a cellar, a quite big cellar that hides secrets they don’t quite understand; secrets some people are interested in keeping secret. They also find Thale of course, but finding her is not their biggest problem!

Promoted with a highly effective trailer and teaser art, Thale takes a different direction than you might think. It’s not a creature feature with lots of forest spirits running around, killing people or seducing lumberjacks. The film is rooted in folklore and mythology, but is more an atmospheric thriller where the mysterious truth is slowly unveiled through characters, discoveries and a voice recorded on tape. The background to the story is actually a type of crime very similar to those horrible cases of women being held captive in underground cellars in Austria. This adds a disturbing layer to the film, and makes it more real in a way, in spite of the tail. Silje Reinåmo plays Thale, the beautiful forest creature that looks like a young woman, except for the cow’s tail growing out from her back.

By the way, it is true what you might have heard; throughout the film she is mostly naked, but not in an exploitive way. Thale has been held captive and is quite new and “naked” mentally towards the abrupt changes in her life, reacting more like an animal than a human (reminding me of L’enfant sauvage sometimes). Besides, which forest creatures actually need clothes? Thale’s nakedness is of course not the main point of the film, but is important to observe because her character has no dialogue whatsoever. Every bit of communication is done with subtle looks, reactions, and body language. Reinåmo does that through brilliant acting, and displays a wide range of emotions with simple yet effective means, augmented by nice camera work. She is of course supported by Erlend Nervold and Jon Sigve Skard who plays the two cleaners. They too showcase great acting skills, but probably need to thank director Aleksander Nordaas for underacting just enough to keep the two characters credible. There are a few other actors in the film too, but these three make a great triangle as they bounce off each other as well as the story itself, much of the time in a very confined space (not totally unlike Evil Dead in fact).

So, we have a hulder without any dialogue and two low-key characters that unknowingly helps Mother Nature reset herself. Rarely has a fantasy film been carried by so few characters. This works out great here, so how does the rest of the film fare? The plot takes some unexpected and surprising turns now and then, and the ending could use some more tweaking, but the real strength is the very different presentation of the hulder. Any creature presented this way would be the creative option – not the actual image but it is a case of working with a benign creature, not against an evil being, even if it proves to be lethal. The movie has flaws (for example, the voice on the tape was used a little too much), due to being made on a low budget and perhaps also due to being the debut feature of the director, but in addition to a good story and fine execution, the whole concept is different and untraditional; Thale is not flashy, cool or “fun” in a rollercoaster way – it does not try to be, and does not need to be, and that is its strength – and manages to seamlessly blend a crime mystery with a triller in a fantasy wrapping. Thale does things that fantasy movies almost never do. This bumps the movie up from a 7 to an 8.

Even the film’s title has many layers to it. Thale is a woman’s name. More than a thousand women are baptised Thale or Tale in Norway. But in this case, the word means so much more. It can also mean “speech” in Norwegian; in the film, Thale does not speak at all, so it’s a name and a title linked to her lack of dialogue. It’s also a play on words for tail, as in English Thale is pronounced “tail”. It can also be pronounced “tale” as in “story”. Finally, if you remove the T you get “hale” – the Norwegian word for tail. Getting so many meanings into one short title is almost worth an extra point in itself.

Directed by Aleksander Nordaas.

Rated 8 of 10.

Norway, 2012.