A strong central performance from Aksel Hennie and a fresh look at the Norwegian perspective on World War II make Max Manus an engrossing, but not quite fully realized film.
Opening in 1939 with the Winter War between the Soviet Union and Finland, co-directors Joachim Rønning and Espen Sandberg follow Manus as he returns to Norway and joins the resistance movement. Hennie portrays Manus – one of the war’s most daring saboteurs – as a fierce patriot. “Why do you want to be a saboteur, Max?” asks a colonel early on. “My country was stolen from me, sir. And I want it back,” comes the simple reply.
Given that Manus is the focus of the story, it’s appropriate that his character winds up being the most fleshed out. Loyal to his country and his fellow saboteurs, Manus is torn apart by guilt as his friends begin to fall even as his own legend continues to grow. He repeatedly escapes capture through a combination of bravery and sheer luck, which only adds to the weight on his conscience.
The rest of the cast aren’t given as much to work with, as Thomas Nordseth-Tiller’s script takes quite a few shortcuts. Agnes Kittelsen plays Tikken, the love interest in the film. Her character goes from being irritated by Manus to falling in love with him practically over night, with little indication given to the audience as to why. Ken Duken plays the antagonist of the film, German Gestapo officer Siegfried Fehmer. But again, you wouldn’t know this from the script, since the character isn’t even named.
Shortcomings in the writing aside, even the smallest parts are well performed. For example, Julia Bache-Wiig plays a nurse sympathetic to Manus. She only appears briefly, but has perhaps the most memorable bit part in the film.
There are other nits to be picked. The sabotage missions all start to feel rather familiar at a certain point: 1) Paddle out to boat under cover of darkness. 2) Attach mines to boat. 3) Get the heck out of there. 4) Wait for big boom. Surely more went into it than that, but sadly the planning stages of these sabotage missions are glossed over.
Additionally, the film suffers from a tacked-on happy ending that feels like a throwback to the Hays Code days. The sudden shift in tone is rather jarring.
In a lower-bugdet production, these flaws might’ve risen more clearly to the surface, but the top-notch acting, lush cinematography and meticulously detailed costumes and sets in end up mostly saving the day. Still, one can’t help but wonder what this film might’ve been like if someone had given the screenplay another round of edits, or just made it longer instead of trying to shoehorn in plot points.