There are times when watching Daybreak, Swedish writer-director Bjorn Runge’s meditation on hope after despair, feels more like primal scream therapy. Characters have a habit of bursting into screaming rage unexpectedly. Everyone is on an emotional precipice and everyone is hiding from whatever placed them there and the precipitous fall ahead if they don’t release their fury.
The film opens with a heart operation. A young girl receives a new heart, which is taken, bloody and lifeless from an icebox before giving and receiving life. It is a painful procedure and an obvious metaphor for what follows over the next 24 hours in three intertwined stories.
The action centres around four adults: Rickard, a gifted surgeon, whose bad behaviour is finding him out; Agnes, his wife, whose seeming perfect life is unravelling; Anita, corroded by bitterness following the break-up of her 25-year marriage; and Anders, a bricklayer, working every hour God sends but losing touch with his family. All are tied fast to fantasies about their suffering and what will make them happy. But only letting go of these fantasies and facing the flesh and blood of human connection will bring happiness – the daybreak of the title.
Runge wanted to make a film about hope and ultimately he has, but there are times watching it when despair sets in for the viewer. Bitterness, played out with all too graphic fury, is wearying to watch. The fantastical plot twists that overtake two characters do hold your interest: Anita revenges herself on her ex and his young wife in what must be a fantasy for women of a certain age dumped for younger, more pliant models; and Anders is wrenched awake and aware of his wrong priorities by an elderly couple who pay him to brick them into their home, much as he has bricked in his emotions by overworking.
It is a portentous night for all concerned, upon which they learn the truth about their own destructive habits and need for change and that love, not hate, daybreak, not darkness are vital to survival. The message is underlined by the harsh light that pervades the mise en scene. Like the raw emotions of the central characters, it allows no room for the subtlety of shadows, and only when the characters finally emerge from their trauma does a softer light reveal something more beautiful and hopeful.
Runge has created a powerful drama, which has received critical plaudits throughout Scandinavia. Ann Petren as Anita gives a tour de force performance as a woman driven mad by lost love, while the pain of realisation in Pernilla August as wronged wife Agnes is tangible without being overwrought. But there are times when Runge’s plot veers too far off balance to keep the audience and the rage of too many characters renders them unsympathetic – bitterness is a bad cosmetic. But stay the distance and you are rewarded with a reminder that life in all its subtleties is worth waking up to and after the darkness there is always daybreak.