It takes a lot for a World War II movie to really set itself apart from the crowd, and Richard Holm's Beyond the Border (aka Gränsen) can't quite convince us armchair generals it's that different. The story of a group of Swedish soldiers behind enemy lines in Finland as the Germans prepare to invade their homeland, Beyond the Border manages some great moments but there's too much slavish adherence to type for it to be much more than very good overall. As a dry, savagely violent look at the messy business of war on a small scale, how human frailty leads people to make poor decisions and the terrible consequences those decisions lead to, it's fantastic. But Holm and star André Sjöberg (who co-wrote) keeps muddying the waters, throwing in some cartoon Nazis, a dark past and turning the final arc into a quest for vengeance that plays out closer to a 1980s B-movie than a harrowing military drama. Beyond the Border is still worth a watch, without question, but it could have been essential.
The central conflict is between Aron and Sven Stenström, brothers serving in the Swedish army. As the older, more responsible of the two, with a pregnant young wife and his career to think of, Aron (Sjöberg) feels an obligation to keep his more cocksure sibling in line. But when Sven (Martin Wallström) is despatched to a roadblock post close to the border, the endless speculation over what the future with Germany holds rouses his curiosity. Sneaking out at night with another soldier to take a glimpse at the Nazi patrols, the two men see something they shouldn't have, and chaos ensues. Knowing they could be caught and accused of provoking open warfare - which the two countries haven't started yet, remember - both men vanish into the wilderness trying to shake off their pursuit. When Aron learns his next trip across the border will now be following their trail, he's torn between his duty as an officer in finding out what it was they saw, and wanting to bring his brother home.
At times, Beyond the Border is all bombast and posturing; at others it's slow and contemplative, and Holm can't quite seem to decide how to segue between the two. The prologue sets up Aron's relationship with his superior, Major Adolfsson, both laying traps for the inevitable German invasion, the older man cool under pressure with Aron still plagued by battlefield jitters. While it's good, the whole thing suggests this is supposed to be the start of the tension escalating when nothing of direct import really happens for some time after that. If you think of both action and melodrama as two separate plot threads, neither quite fires up the way you'd hope. Most of Aron's squad aren't really sketched out beyond a few basic details, and it's not as if Holm and Sjöberg don't give themselves the running time to do any better. Instead they settle for macho banter or the kind of world-weary fatalism we've seen countless times before, and the cast are rarely good enough to sell this as anything more than that.
Sometimes it works, particularly when no-one's actually saying anything. Once it becomes clear how terribly wrong Sven's foray into enemy territory has gone, the set piece that follows and the wordless interplay between the squad is excellent. Beyond the Border does flirt with cartoonish action-movie stereotypes - Rasmus Troedsson's German officer never feels right - but at times its treatment of men coming apart in the throes of violent conflict is fantastic. Anti Reinni steals nearly every scene he's in as Wille Järvinen, a grizzled veteran of the Winter War, and a later fight with him and Aron attacked on a frozen lake is a superbly tense, horrifically bloody little vignette that's simply beautifully shot. Beyond the Border isn't about to topple something like Come and See, but it has something of the same approach to violence - hollow-eyed, animal emotion and gut-wrenching ugliness.
It's also a visually striking film - Holm is obviously running on a relatively low budget, and every so often Beyond the Border does look like a bunch of grown men playing dress-up, but for the most part he and DP Andreas Wessberg frame the Scandinavian wilderness superbly. Filmed on the Red camera, many of the landscape shots that bookend individual scenes are poster-worthy, and there's a definite sense of the awful solitude the stranded men have to put up with, the slim chance they'll ever make it to safety. Technically Holm's work doesn't seem anything too distinctive but it's always competent, at least, and everything - action or dialogue - flows well enough. Henrik Lindström and Anton Steen's score is fairly predictable, but never shovels on the treacle or overwhelms whatever's going on.
Yet Beyond the Border does give the constant impression that on some level you know what's coming, and that little of it (bar that terrible violence) connects in any truly meaningful way. When the characters are as perfunctory as they are Aron's young wife pleading for him to come home feels naggingly sentimental rather than a painful reminder he's a husband and father-to-be; Hauptmann Keller (Troedsson) feels like a caricature, simpering excitedly while he tortures his captives, and the final rescue sequence skirts uncomfortably close to being a lazy knockoff of The Dirty Dozen. Beyond the Border flirts with being a masterpiece, but Holm doesn't seem up to making anything serious out of it. If you follow the genre, then by all means, give it a shot: there are more than enough moments likely to leave you shaken and awestruck. It's just there are others liable to have you twiddling your thumbs and wondering how much more of this you've got left to watch.
Optimum Home Entertainment's UK DVD of Beyond the Border (available to buy now) is a bare-bones release, but gives the film a solid presentation that makes it a worthy buy or rental. There are no trailers: the disc goes straight into a static menu which is a little cheap and cheerful, but easy to navigate. The film has been divided into eight chapter stops.
The basic 5.1 audio track is clear, legible and well-mixed: there are long stretches of gunfire, some explosions and anguished screaming, but none of this loud enough to trouble anyone's speaker system. Everyone speaks distinctly enough it's always obvious who's talking. English subtitles are fixed, but clear and easy to read, with few if any spelling or grammatical errors. Beyond the Border is largely in Swedish, with some German dialogue which is not subtitled.
The picture is very good; not quite reference material, and a little soft, but largely free from blocking and with good definition. A few night or darkly-lit scenes are very blurry and indistinct, though it's hard to tell whether or not this is intentional - Holm and his DP seem to be trying to get more of a filmic look out of the Red, with more emphasis on detailed closeups than deep focus, but either way it doesn't spoil the film. Again, there are moments the crew can't quite get the look right, where Beyond the Border looks a little too digital, with a weird, artificial sheen to it like a cheap backdrop, but for the most part the colour palette and the composition set off the snow-bound countryside incredibly well. The film seems to work particularly effectively with a good upscaling process, too - put through a PlayStation 3 the visuals become even more impressive. Overall, it's not the best the format can offer, but it's some way up there.
The only extra is the film's original Swedish trailer (2:19), subtitled in English, which does a good job of setting things up and doesn't contain any outright spoilers, though does give away a great many of the best bits.
Beyond the Border invests a great deal of effort into telling a hard-hitting, memorable war story, so it's especially disappointing it doesn't quite clear the bar it sets itself. Richard Holm and his writers are at pains to throw in as many memorable scenes as they can, but simply haven't developed them all to the same standard and can't quite get them to flow much more than adequately. With a bit more work Beyond the Border could have been something extraordinary, and it's hard not to feel disappointed with it. Still, there are moments of raw, powerful emotion here, some great setpieces and at least one fantastic supporting performance, enough that Beyond the Border definitely comes recommended. Optimum Home Entertainment's UK DVD provides a very good (if bare-bones) way to see it.
(Thanks go to Optimum Home Entertainment and Romley Davies PR for facilitating this review.)