"Soldier" explores female vet's home-front battles

Sun Feb 8, 2009 7:41pm EST
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By Deborah Young

BERLIN (Hollywood Reporter) - An inwardly and outwardly scarred Danish servicewoman back from a tour of duty in Iraq provides "Little Soldier" with a rock-solid center, from which multiple themes shoot out like an explosion of shrapnel.

Returning to the Berlin Film Festival for the third time, Danish director Annette K. Olesen ("Minor Mishaps," "In Your Hands") shows a confident grasp of camera and narration, backed by excellent performances. Although commercial prospects will be limited by a certain northern chilliness that prevents the audience from automatically connecting to the unusual characters, the film could take home acting prizes that would encourage art-house viewers to give it a try.

The opening scenes introduce Lotte (Trine Dyrholm), an attractively tough woman in her 40s who drinks heavily and keeps to herself. When her jolly father (Finn Nielsen) discovers she has returned from Iraq early, he pulls her into the family business of sex-trafficking a ring of Nigerian prostitutes. Lotte, who still is struggling for her father's love, becomes chauffeur to his favorite call girl, Lily (Lorna Brown), who he has taken as a live-in lover.

Lily and Lotte dislike each other from the start, but driving from hotel to hotel, from trick to trick, the two women begin, predictably, to bond. When Lily announces that she expects Lotte to carry a baseball bat to defend her from violent johns, we know it is only a matter of time before the former soldier will be put to a physical test. The long-announced incident, when it comes to pass, consolidates Lily and Lotte's relationship, which is less a friendship than that of a bodyguard to the person she is successfully protecting.

At this point, however, Lotte makes the mistake of becoming emotionally involved with Lily's situation as a single mother who prostitutes herself to support a daughter she hasn't seen in years. Misreading Lily's desires, confusing reality with the traumas she carries from her own damaged childhood and most of all mouthing the hollow soldier's phrase "I'm going to get you out of here," Lotte naively precipitates a royal mess.

Kim Fupz Aakeson's complex screenplay heaps a lot on the plate from the start: sex trafficking, childhood traumas, perverse father-daughter relations and sexual ambiguity, not to mention the great North-South, black-white, rich-poor divide. Too many issues dilute the strength of the basic character relationships, which would have been better served with leaner scripting. An entire subplot involving Lotte's failed romance with her handsome and conveniently just-single neighbor, for example, is as unconvincing and superfluous as her sudden flirtation with Lily on a beach.

On the other hand, the moral ambiguity of warfare as a misguided attempt to "do good," seen through the eyes of a battle-scarred soldier, is a theme that could interest wider audiences, had it been developed rather than merely hinted at.

In the main role, Dyrholm offers a thoughtful, multilayered performance as the guarded Lotte, who finds her repressed fears and fantasies set off by Brown's tough, down-to-earth but very human call girl. The film is cleanly shot in neutral white interiors that often seem too upmarket for the situations.

Reuters/Hollywood Reporter