Speak No Evil: Review

Speak No Evil: Review

Speak No Evil: Review. By Joe Muldoon.

A Hanekesque stew of nausea and apprehension, Speak No Evil is a sickeningly effective psychological horror-thriller. Finding its inspiration from an invitation writer-director Christian Tafdrup received from a Dutch couple he and his partner met on holiday, the film is a dark, imaginary “what if?” scenario that springs itself from something otherwise innocuous. Speak No Evil is as much a dialogue on passivity as it is a question aimed towards its audience; what would you do?

A middle-class Danish family –a mother, a father, and a young daughter– are on holiday at a villa in rural Italy with a group of other families they’ve never met. There, they meet a Dutch family who mostly meet the same description as themselves and they bond over their dinners at the villa. Upon returning home to their native Denmark, the couple find an invitation in their mailbox from their Dutch holiday companions.



Louise (Sidsel Siem Koch) is hesitant to visit a couple they barely know, whilst Bjørn (Morten Burian) gravitates towards going – after consulting their friends over dinner, the couple’s reluctance to appear rude by not accepting the offer becomes the deciding factor in their visit. Taking their daughter Agnes (Liva Forsberg) with them, they begin the journey down to the Netherlands and soon find themselves back in the company of Patrick (Fedja van Huêt), Karin (Karina Smulders), and their near-mute son Abel (Marius Damslev). As the two families spend more time together, it becomes increasingly clear that something isn’t quite right with the Dutch family – but what?

Tafdrup’s greatest success with his film is the way in which he tackles normalcy biases head-on; as Patrick and Karin’s actions become more peculiar and eyebrow-raising, Bjørn meets them with half-smiles and leaves the irregularities unaddressed. Louise, however, is less prone towards dismissing their behaviour and is more confrontational, apparently hurting her hosts’ feelings in doing so. The film asks of us, at what point does politeness become unreasonable – when must we forego niceties?

Though Louise initially acquiesces to her husband’s urges to keep a smiling face, Bjørn remains a prisoner to politeness, his passivity slowly straying into the territory of patheticness. There’s something clearly malodorous between the lines of the hosts’ behaviour, but it meets little resistance. As the tension transitions from simmering to scalding, the true horror that’s been lurking in clear sight lays itself bare.

van Huêt is marvellous as Patrick, his presence a clever mixture of casualness and authoritativeness. His performance is akin to tennis; every shot aimed at him, he beats back effortlessly, shrugging off his growingly concerning demeanour as him simply being an odd person, doing things differently. van Huêt’s sinisterness and Smulders’ stoicism make for a startling force when melded together, and they are what makes Speak No Evil such an uncomfortable viewing experience.

Bjørn’s trepidation is clearly not an endorsement of spinelessness, but it does beg the question of how much we should tolerate in order to retain peace during unease; when does inaction become enablement? Since its release, the film has found itself subject to some audience frustration, with plenty of “why don’t they just” and “if it were me”’s levelled against it – but they somewhat miss the point.

When timidity and a bias towards normalcy are combined, they result in Bjørn’s inertness in the face of strangeness; after all, who amongst us hasn’t ignored alarm bells, even if only to save face? Speak No Evil is an excruciating watch, and one worth surrendering ourselves to. A provocative satire of middle-class sensibilities, it forces its audience to look inwards in a way hitherto unexplored – a hostage film with the captors being the veneer of civility.

By Joe Muldoon.


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