"Ecclesiastes Minus the Creator"
What You Need To Know:
MISERY HARBOUR tries to cover an ambitious amount of territory, but the script doesn’t plumb the depths needed to create a compelling film. It also gives a humanistic message that an individual must reject God, authority, family, and societal norms in order to be free, and a romantic statement that “Those who live recklessly will hold all life’s threads in their hands.” If viewed with discernment, MISERY HARBOUR serves as a modern Ecclesiastes message that life without God is futility. However, parents should be cautious, as the movie contains strong language and brief sexual scenes.
(HH, RoRo, AbAb, LL, VV, SS, NN, A, D, M) Humanistic/romantic worldview, emphasizing individualism overcoming constraints of religion, family, authority, & society; 12 obscenities that include sexually-oriented vulgarity & 8 profanities; ten brief violent incidents, including beatings, a whipping, knifing threats & one self-defense stabbing; two scenes of depicted fornication & one of erotic touching; two scenes of brief natural male rear nudity, one scene of woman in non-revealing underwear & one brief shot of upper female nudity; alcohol use throughout movie, including drunkenness by teenagers; cigarette smoking throughout; and, frequent lying & rejection of family & social norms.
MISERY HARBOUR is: a Norwegian coming-of-age adventure; a drama about a young man’s unresolved guilt; and, a story of a writer struggling to achieve success. That’s an ambitious amount of territory to cover in 90 minutes, and the script doesn’t plumb the depths needed to create a compelling film.
These three tales center around a young Dane, Espen Arnakke (Nicolaj Coster Waldau). The teenage Espen runs away to sea, jumps ship to escape the sadistic crew, finds love and menace in Misery Harbour, and has a life-changing, horrific experience as a fledgling lumberjack. Interwoven with this story are scenes of Arnakke as a young man in Oslo, trying both to purge his guilt over having taken a life and to find success as a writer.
Waldau is the most interesting draw to the movie. He does a convincing job of portraying Espen as a teen, a young adult, and briefly as a successful author. Some clever makeup work helped, but the actor was excellent in going from a naïve, awkward youth to a troubled individual to a confident writer.
Aside from Waldau’s performance, the movie runs aground. Character motivations are often murky, and some events are implausible. For instance, the Oslo scenes never explain who Arnakke’s surrogate confessor Jenny is. A sympathetic friend? A contact within the publishing world? Worse is seeing Espen manage to swim fully-clothed in freezing Atlantic waters, then survive the night without experiencing hypothermia.
The real disappointment, however, is in the movie’s message. It gives the humanistic message that an individual must reject God, authority, family, and societal norms in order to be free. Early in the film, Espen’s father prays for protection from sin and temptation. It’s the only positive reference to God in the movie. Even here, what could have been a moving acknowledgment of God is undercut by Espen silently joking with his sister. When his father commands Espen to quit school and work in the local factory, he’s portrayed as being harsh and uncaring. Never mind that his son was stealing alcohol and he was hoping hard work would improve Espen’s character. Espen rebels by secretly signing on with a ship bound for Newfoundland. Nothing is shown of the family’s grief; in fact, the family is never seen again.
MISERY HARBOUR also delivers a strong romantic statement. At one point Espen says, “Those who live recklessly will hold all life’s threads in their hands and will have found life’s one true sanctuary.” In other words, a person can control life and find peace by living according to their whims. This, of course, is a totally unbiblical worldview. God is in control, not mankind, and true peace is found only through surrendering to Jesus Christ.
Another serious flaw is that Arnakke doesn’t accept responsibility for his decisions. He rejects his dad’s discipline as the response to his booze stealing. He fails to fulfill his commitment after he contracts to be a ship’s crewman. At Misery Harbour, he runs away from a job and relational problems. The problem isn’t so much in his immaturity, but that the movie never brings his decision-making into question. Espen is portrayed as a likeable youth. Add the contrasting evil of his nemesis, Wakefield (Stuart Graham), and an emotional sleight-of-hand is created that blinds undiscerning viewers from seeing how flawed Espen is. The magic trick works particularly well in masking the lying that Espen does throughout the movie. He never faces consequences for his lies. Wakefield dies as an indirect result of lying about Espen, but the implication is that consequences occur based on whether someone is nice or nasty, not that truth is an intrinsic virtue.
The unresolved guilt storyline is perhaps the most intriguing. It shows the core problem of the movie and of society. Espen killed a man in self-defense, but the memory continued to plague him. He struggles and succeeds in confessing through his writing, first to Jenny and then to society as his book is published. Yet, the final scene presents a dichotomy: Arnakke awakening from a nightmare of Wakefield, then lying back down next to his girlfriend. His guilt still exists, in spite of his confession, in spite of him now being the confident author and lover. The movie admits that it lacks the answer to the problem of guilt. That is because guilt requires forgiveness, and forgiveness requires turning to the Lord. Had MISERY HARBOUR included this truth, it might have spoken wisdom – “Remember your Creator in the days of your youth.” Instead, it makes the only comment possible regarding a life without God: “Futility, futility, all is futility.”