Sonja: The White Swan (2018)
Bio-pics presume a subject worthy of a story, but what if the storytelling depicts an unlikeable character whose achievements were only ever guided by self-interest: has the film been worthwhile? Sonja: The White Swan (2018)raises this question.
Born to wealthy parents in Norway in 1912, Sonja Henie (Ine Marie Wilmann) was a child prodigy on ice. After the best trainers in the world polished her figure skating skills, she won her first world title at 10 years of age and, the following year, was the youngest person ever to compete at the Olympic Games. As she grew, her unique gift would be combining balletic choreography, white boots, short skirt and dramatic music in ways that transformed the sport into the spectacular event it is today.
The lure of commercial ice shows led Sonja to leave the sport and eventually become another piece of hot property for Hollywood. Her early films were a huge success, making her one of America’s most wealthy women during a seven-year movie career. The film shows how, along the way, she exploits and mistreats those closest to her: a sub-cast of family, personal assistant, and the Hollywood mogul, Daryl Zanuck. A classic ‘fallen star’, she becomes a victim of success, ego, and hedonism, as well as drug and alcohol-fuelled parties evocative of Baz Luhrmann’s Great Gatsby (2013).
Viewers interested in the history of the sport may find the story interesting, but many will find it neither enjoyable nor worthwhile. There are simply no emotional anchors offered in the film, with Sonja devoid of any redeeming charms, leaving the rest of the ensemble difficult to care about. Most problematic is the direction. Sonja’s story straddles sport and Hollywood, yet strangely the film glosses over the very material that entitles her to claim a place in history, preferring to dwell on the paths she took towards her own demise. Even her Nazi sympathies are merely a passing point of interest, despite the complexities they raised at the time.
Just being an historical figure is not sufficient for holding viewers’ attention or creating emotional engagement. With many of the key filmic ingredients readily available, the story could have been told differently and been both enjoyable and worthwhile. Instead, it must settle for being a mediocre bio-pic of a once great skater who briefly became a movie star.
Director: Anne Sewitsky
Stars: Ine Marie Wilmann, Valene Kane, Eldar Skar