May 23, 2019

45th Annual Seattle International Film Festival: A Norwegian Biopic of Ice Skating Star Sonja Henie

Sonja: the White Swan (2019) is a biopic of skating star Sonja Henie, who made records as an athlete and sparkled briefly, but potently as a movie queen in Hollywood musicals. I don’t know enough about this phenomenally successful athlete/actress to be able to say whether it succeeded in telling her story, but it does reveal a fascinating character. Starring as Henie, Ine Marie Wilmann portrays a complex, passionate woman. The film around her doesn’t always rise to the level of her performance, but it is magical when it does.

Sonja moves around in time, showing the origins of Henie’s skating passion and occasionally dipping back into the past to shed light on her present. From the beginning, she possesses a ferocious belief in herself. She summons success as much as achieving it. When athletic fame brings her to Fox Studios, she will take no less than a four picture deal, thwarting studio head Darryl F. Zanuck’s efforts to try her out in small parts before taking a real financial risk.

Henie is the same in her relationships, demanding that her family move from Norway to be with her in California and then molding their lives to her satisfaction. When she hires an assistant, she expects the same fealty, having her move in so that her employee’s life is in service to her. At first, this behavior is mildly disturbing, but as the story progresses, her ruthless nature reveals itself more fully and it is chilling.

While it is undeniable that the Henie portrayed here was capable of horrific behavior, just as often the things she did that caused scandal would hardly inspire a raised eyebrow if done by a man. Driving a hard bargain or indulging in free love and afternoon champagne were not the domain of women then, and to this day can be the cause of scorn.

In the end, I didn’t recognize the Henie I’d seen in the movies here. Even the gorgeous scenes where her film production numbers are reproduced with magnificent glamour don’t capture the button-nosed sweetness of the star. Wilmann does much with the material she is given though, portraying a woman capable of great cruelty, but also delightfully indulgent in the pleasures of life.

The film as a whole played unevenly for me. In her rise to fame, we see her successes in great detail. As she declines, much of the action plays off-screen, sometimes related in voiceover, which made her fall difficult to engage with on an emotional level. The early scenes pop with an almost sensual energy, buoyed by a punchy modern soundtrack full of electronic beats and upbeat soul and hip hop that instead of seeming anachronistic, does much to express Henie's passionate drive. That feeling devolves into a bland second act, where some scenes are lit so dimly that it is hard to make out what is happening.

In a coda with a sequence of film clips featuring the real Henie, the star is presented in her later years, happily married and apparently thriving. We see where she ended up, but precisely how she got there remains a mystery.

This is worth a view based on Wilmann’s remarkable performance and the punch of the early scenes and movie sequence reproductions.

Tickets for the final SIFF screening of the film on 5/27 can be purchased here.

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