Oslo Review: Ruth Wilson and Andrew Scott Solve The Middle East, or 4 Ways The Play Worked Better

“Oslo” tells the extraordinary true story of the Norwegian couple who instigated and pushed along the secret negotiations that resulted in the 1993 Oslo Peace Accords between Israel and the Palestinian Liberation Organization. There is much to like in the HBO film, as there was in the 2017 Tony Award winning best play on which it is based. If the film has a completely different cast, and a running time that’s an hour shorter than the play, the new cast is largely first-rate, and there are no radical changes in the screenplay, which was adapted from the intelligent script by the playwright himself, J.T. Rogers.  Bartlett Sher, a fixture on Broadway who directed the play for Lincoln Center, is making his feature film directorial debut.

But “Oslo” feels in part like a reminder of some of the advantages of live in-person theater,  after more than a year spent without it. 

Some of the ways that “Oslo” the Broadway play worked better than “Oslo” the movie were beyond the control of the filmmakers, and some have nothing to do with the inherent qualities of stagecraft.  But it feels like a case study nonetheless.

  1. The Timing

I first saw the play in July, 2016, during the U.S. Presidential campaign, when it was possible to view “Oslo” as a history lesson with a hopeful (maybe universal, maybe even applicable) message  -– that smart individuals working together can bridge even the most polarized of people. It was even possible to find it entertaining, given the vivid personalities of some of the characters, including Jefferson Mays as Terje Rød-Larsen, a sociologist who is half of the Norwegian couple,  Anthony Azizi as the chief Palestinian negotiator and Michael Aronov as one of the Israeli negotiators (Aronov won a Tony for the role.)

But the film arrives in 2021 shortly after a precarious ceasefire that put at least a temporary stop to the renewed violence between Israelis and Palestinians in Gaza – the center of the conflict in the 1990s as well. The characters may be just as vivid, but it’s a challenge for anybody who pays attention to the news to see the goings-on in “Oslo”  as just a good story; given the current context, it’s easier to view the film as outdated, incomplete,  even naïve, certainly far from instructive. 

This is arguably exacerbated by the medium of film.

2. The location.

“Oslo” takes place primarily in Norway, with scenes in Israel and London and Sweden, but the play was staged with minimal sets, just enough to suggest a room (whether living room or conference room.) That theatrical fluidity allowed the audience to focus on the characters and the story 

But the movie  has scenes filmed on location in Norway and in Israel; the interiors are meticulously detailed; and  there are also newsreel footage that depicts specific political figures, and actual violent encounters.  Seconds into the film, we see an Israeli flag on fire. The paradoxical effect for me of this greater specificity, the eschewing of theatrical abstraction in favor of film literalism, is to make the film feel more artificial. And, in one way, even in bad taste:

3. The point of view

Mona, the Norwegian diplomat, was portrayed by Jennifer Ehle in the play, and served as the narrator.  There is no narration in the film, but  Mona, portrayed by Ruth Wilson in the film, is placed at its center in sometimes uncomfortable ways. That first scene with the burning Israeli flag shows Mona wandering through a war-ravaged Gaza in slow motion, interspersed (sometimes overlaid) with the newsreel violence, leading abruptly to her waking up in bed – this has been her bad dream. We return to her nightmare as flashbacks when she walks the streets of Oslo to her office. Surely this was meant only to suggest visually her motivation for trying to help bring peace to the region.  But these and some subsequent scenes – such as her taking command with a pep talk to the two sides when negotiations have come to an impasse —  make the movie feel as if it’s meant to be from her point of view.  This is not how it felt in the theater, where audiences had freedom to look at anybody on stage, and there was a sense of an ensemble. The film directs our attention, and, in pivotal moments, directs it to Ruth Wilson, who gets lots of close-ups. It’s short subconscious step from there to seeing Ruth Wilson as more interesting, more important, than peace in the Middle East.

4. Pictures vs. words

It’s a given that the producers of “Oslo” Steven Spielberg and Marc Platt (Ben’s pop) weren’t going simply to transpose to film the three-hour talky play that was on stage on Lincoln Center. But in cutting it down to two hours, and emphasizing the visual, the filmmakers have taken something away — sometimes to jolting effect At one point, Israeli negotiator Savir (Jeff Wilbusch) suddenly dances with Mona. Filmgoers probably presume he’s just exuberant because negotiations are going well. Left out of the movie is the conversation that leads up to it. In the play, Savir says exuberantly:

“Life is nothing if not surprising, eh? I mean, here I am with you, and two days ago I knew nothing about any of this, and two weeks ago I was running our consulate in New York. Have you been?”

“New York? No, I’ve not had a chance to go,” Mona replies.

“My God, what a city. I mean, the jazz! The best places to hear it in the world. Every night, I would go out: jazz, films, dancing. Do you dance?”

“We both do,” Larsen says.

Was that conversation essential? No. But it was fun, especially when you were sitting there listening to this surrounded by other New Yorkers.

Author: New York Theater

Jonathan Mandell is a 3rd generation NYC journalist, who sees shows, reads plays, writes reviews and sometimes talks with people.

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