David Jenkins


The Girl with the Needle – first-look review

Magnus Von Horn brings subtlety and empathy to the serial killer genre in this extraordinary true-life yarn.

It helps to have some vague stylistic or thematic justification for choosing to shoot your modern film in black and white. Magnus Von Horn’s The Girl with the Needle thankfully has both, in its gothic, crepuscular depiction of World War One-era Copenhagen, and its rogues gallery of tortured miscreants who live by an aggressively binary and personally-ascribed form of morality. This is a story in which colour, radiance and vibrancy have purposefully been omitted from the menu, lest the resolute bleakness of the lives it captures be diluted in any way.

We meet Karoline (Vic Carmen Sonne), a ditsy but strong-willed seamstress, as she’s being tossed out of her simple single-room apartment for unpaid rent, the landlord already planning to hoist in a replacement. It transpires that her husband went off to war and, due to an understandable communications breakdown, is now thought to be dead. Her request for a supplement on her meagre income leads to a backstreet affair with the boss of the mill, yet her hopes of a new, affluent future in his arms are swiftly dashed.

Her meek husband then returns, sporting a terrifying mask to cover newly-acquired facial disfigurements, and she is pregnant with the boss’s child. At this point the film feels like a pointed Victoriana-gothic homage to David Lynch’s The Elephant Man, but as soon as you think it, things jackknife in an entirely different direction.

As a character, Karoline is very much a master of her own destiny, even if she’s exclusively driven by urges that cause great harm in the short term. Her decision-making process is one governed by a grim logic, and while the film ushers us across some very dark terrain, there’s never the feeling of the director attempting to punish his characters or the audience (in the vein of, say, a Michael Haneke or Lars Von Trier).

The above description covers maybe the first 30 minutes of plot, all of which is revealed to be necessary context for the film’s more baroque and harrowing second act in which Karoline seeks the services of backstreet facilitator Dagmar (a subtly terrifying Trine Dyrholm), who make ends meet by rehousing babies for a healthy fee. Yet rather than help our heroine out of her bind, it actually makes her predicament even more complex.

Though there’s certainly a tabloid intrigue to be found in its “inspired by true events” yarn, the real value of the film is to be found in its wider socio-political concern in questions surrounding certain female bodily autonomy and the responsibilities that are demanded from child-rearing. As such, there are nods to films such as Mike Leigh’s Vera Drake and Audrey Diwan’s Happening in how it presents a world in which a woman’s only real choice was to suffer the consequences of a man’s errant actions and a government’s violent indifference.

Von Horn’s writing and direction are measured perfectly to fit the material, while the subtle, unshowy elegance of Michał Dymek’s cinematography are never ramped up to the point that they usurp the nuances of the drama. Yet it’s Sonne’s remarkable, multifarious and shape-shifting performance that really lifts this one above the pack. She uses her face with the expressiveness of a silent film actress, so when the big emotions eventually come they hit especially hard.

Published 15 May 2024

Tags: Official Competition

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