The past often appears sun-bleached on the screen: idyllic, nostalgic. Niels Arden Oplev’s portrayal of Denmark in 1976 receives the same treatment in Speed Walking, a coming of age drama that exudes a reflective humour on the period – in its commitment to costume design at the very least. Amidst a sexual revolution – with nods to the Danish liberation of pornography – a provincial town with an obsession for the serious sport of speed walking is the stage for this intimate and painfully honest story of growing up. Far removed from the director’s popular Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, but just as controversial in his handling of teen sex, it is a complicated tale, which Oplev himself expected to be banned in America.
The film opens with an establishing shot of this bizarre town, featuring a platoon of young teens speed walking- or mincing with a grimace- over the crest of the road, urged on by their passionate PE teacher. As fourteen year old Martin (Villads Bøye) rides his bike home from school, the period is cemented by Nazareth’s ‘Love Hurts’, and accompanying golden hue. There is a Polaroid quality to the film, which continues throughout. However, the happy nostalgia is temporary, as Martin’s childhood and innocence are shattered by the news of his mother’s unexpected death, a fact that the entire town has been made aware of by the lowering of the town’s state flag to half-mast. The entire town, that is, except him.
His father (Anders W. Berthelsen), and older brother Jans (Jens Malthe Næsby), are both distraught and retreat into themselves, leaving Martin to be the rock of the family. His grief is buried deep within as he attempts to continue life as normal, even going to his morning cooking class on the day of the funeral. Such grief must eventually be confronted, however, and this is done in a heartbreakingly dramatic style at the funeral. Painfully shot in realistic fashion, the camera stands witness, capturing the awkward glances of relatives whilst Martin’s outbursts in trying to prove his mother is not dead are restrained. This gains him the respect of his pretty classmate Kristine, whose growing interest in him has been an unforeseen positive in his bereavement.
It is the close relationships with his friends that offer hope and release from the adults, who are portrayed in a negative light and only confuse and disappoint. The tensions in the house are interspersed with youthful erotic adventures, as his friendship with Kim crosses the line into something more intimately charged. The gentle and elegant way the two boys are shot “experimenting” in soft tones makes something that might have been complicated and awkward seem beautiful and completely natural.
The standout success of the film comes from the brave young cast whose talents diminish the difficulty of portraying homosexual adventures, as they give a powerful and far-ranging emotional performance. Bøye plays Martin with an uncompromising naïveté; sensitive and sensible, he commands the film with what is a beautiful soul in a time of adversity. The content will remain shocking beyond first viewing, and for the considerable future, but the delicate portrayal makes one reluctant to withdraw from this crazy town and its magnetic characters.
Speed Walking is a harrowing human comedy, but realistic to life in its absurdities. The dual challenges of growing up and understanding death both come at once for Martin, and in such difficult situations, sometimes, comedy wins out. The scenes of speed walking interlaced throughout the film are a resounding metaphor for the frantic and straining pace at which life can pull you, especially in those confusing adolescent years, and Niels Arden Oplev’s open and delicately honest portrayal of them is ultimately a bitter-sweet tribute.