Sanctuary opens on a rural home in the Swedish countryside, the serenity of which is soon interrupted by the arrival of police. The child occupant Hella (Clara Christiansson), is questioned as to the location of her father, wanted on suspicion of murder. After they leave, the wanted man (Jakob Cedergren) returns, and the pair flee into large woodlands. It’s not an easy journey from the offset: the family dog has to be shot and a police car gets sent into a ditch in a roadside pursuit. They soon seem free from immediate pursuit, however, and construct a makeshift woodland home in which to live. The father and daughter are brought closer together, even if environmental concerns and the odd encounters with other people provide their own set of problems, though the authoritarian threat inevitably returns to tear them apart.
That relationship between the two is Sanctuary’s most compelling element, alongside the little details of their makeshift existence; there’s a perhaps unavoidable resemblance to Terrence Malick’s Badlands in regards to that latter aspect. In her acting debut, Christiansson is particularly impressive, and it’s her engaging presence that makes some of the screenplay’s divergences a little easier to tolerate. These include a dull tangent with an obsessed woman living alone, and various trips back into the father’s past. Through regularly interrupting the relationship between the central pair, or by repeatedly separating the two, the depiction of the intriguing bond suffers.
There is an interesting coming-of-age story here, and glimpses of it remain even if elements of their dialogue together, particularly some stories shared, feel too manufactured. Also feeling a little artificial is the injection of a fairy-tale style to parts of the aesthetic, and a selection of dream sequences. The frosty cinematography is often gorgeous, and the film’s score – occasionally reminiscent of a spooky nursery rhyme – is sometimes striking, if eventually repetitive and overbearing. That sums up the film in a way: it’s very pretty and stirring in spurts, but in throwing so much at the viewer when its initial simplicity is more than enough, the weight of the piece’s content starts to feel as empty as the vast woodlands the characters make their home.
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Sanctuary has its international premiere at EIFF.