Review by Sean Boelman
One would be hard-pressed to find a film as visually splendid in this year’s lineup as Hanna Slak’s Not a Word. While the movie has plenty of interesting ideas, and Slak was thankfully able to enlist a talented team behind and in front of the camera to bring them to fruition, it is arguably a tad too quiet for its own good.
Not a Word follows a conductor who decides to abruptly go on a sojourn with her son to an island after he is injured at school and begins to exhibit concerning behaviors. Tár this is not — the only commonality between the two being that their protagonists are both female conductors — as Slak has created a film that is much quieter and more contemplative than last year’s lauded drama.
Slak’s approach to the themes is likely to put off many people, but there is something intriguing about it. There are some themes here that are more universal, like the strenuous bond between parent and child in their teenage years; others are a bit more specific, such as suicide and the definition of success for professional women. However, Slak seems intent on not commenting on these ideas, instead simply presenting them and provoking the viewer to explore their own internalized emotions.
Interestingly, the movie’s biggest selling point — or at least what the festival is using to promote it — is not its writer-director, but her collaborators. The work of cinematographer Claire Mathon (Portrait of a Lady on Fire, Spencer) and composer Amélie Legrand do a lot of heavy lifting in Not a Word, elevating the film beyond its somewhat simplistic undercurrents.
Underrated and extraordinarily talented actress Maren Eggert also deserves a lot of credit for this movie’s success, as she is able to get a ton of emotion out of the role. The dynamic she creates with co-star Jona Levin Nicolai, who plays her son, is nearly perfect — capturing that unease and instability that the script was clearly going for.
The pacing is certainly slow, but the excellent technical aspects do a great job of creating an immersive atmosphere. Slak attempts to create feelings of suspense through the film’s various subplots, but the most compelling aspect of the narrative is ultimately the relationship between the protagonist and her son.
While Slak’s intent in creating a conflict between the protagonist’s professional and personal life is understandable, the family conflict is strong enough to suffice. The attempts to draw parallelisms to Mahler’s “Symphony No. 5” are likely to be lost on casual moviegoers, and will likely come across as overly literary — even to those viewers who are informed in music theory and history.
Not a Word is an effective film from an aesthetic standpoint, and its core narrative is quite compelling, although it was in need of a bit of tightening. If Slak had been able to trim some of the fat and focus firmly on this central storyline, this even could have been excellent.
Not a Word is screening at the 2023 Toronto International Film Festival, which runs September 7-17 in Toronto, Canada.