Quake (Skjálfti) Review – Memories Fade, but the Scars Still Linger in This Scandi Drama-Mystery

Quake screens at the 2022 Scandinavian Film Festival. Visit the website for screening details.

Based on the 2015 novel ‘Grand Mal’ by Auður Jónsdóttir, Tinna Hrafnsdóttir’s film Quake is part family drama, part mystery story, and most importantly, part story about gaining independence and autonomy. Recently divorced single mother, Saga (Anita Briem) is having trouble with her latest novel. After a meeting with her publisher she takes her six-year-old son Ívar (Benjamin Árni Daðason) to play in the park. Ívan frightens her when he runs to hide behind a tree while Saga is taking a call from her sister Jóhanna (played by the director herself, Tinna Hrafnsdóttir). Perhaps as a result from her stress at being behind deadline with her work in conjunction with the shock she felt when she imagined she had lost her son; Saga has a grand mal epileptic seizure and is eventually hospitalised. When she wakes up she is disoriented and has lost sizeable portions of her memory.

Saga’s first concern on regaining consciousness is the whereabouts of her son. Her mother Dídí (Edda Björgrinsdóttir) informs her that he is with Saga’s ex-husband Bergur (Sveinn Geirsson) and will remain so until she has recovered from her seizure. Saga is distressed by this news and tries to call Bergur but cannot recall his surname.

Saga’s memory is profoundly compromised but she tries to hide it from her family because she fears she will lose access to Ívan completely. As it stands the family take turns caring for Saga, including her seemingly avuncular and kind father, Gunnar (Jóhann Sigurðsson). The familial concern for Saga soon overwhelms her and she searches for a way to control future seizures including upping the dosage of her medication against medical advice. Saga’s family’s anxiety over her condition seems out of proportion to the false reality she presents to them. Her family have essentially turned her into an invalid (not even realising the extent of the issues Saga is facing) and have effectively imprisoned her in her Reykjavík apartment.

Saga’s lack of memory for basic parts of her life distress her but underneath the contemporary memory loss emerges fragments of memories deeply buried from her childhood. She is haunted by visions and half-recalled sounds that she has repressed. Unable to take control of her present she devotes herself to finding about her past; something her sister Jóhanna dissuades her from doing.

The idea of healing is central to Tinna Hrafnsdóttir’s film. The adage “Time heals all wounds” is taken fairly literally in the work, but caveats are added. Behind the façade of familial connection lies deep trauma that has unknowingly shaped Saga and still weighs heavily on her mother. As Saga unravels the mystery of her family she begins to understand why she mothers her son in an overprotective manner. She also realises why she chose to divorce Bergur and why she is convinced that he cannot adequately care for their son.

Tómas Örn Tómasson’s cinematography captures both the micro and macro aspects of the film and is equally impressive in showing the vast beauty of Iceland as it is in defining character moments. Of note is the direction of Saga’s seizure and the disorientation she faces as she searches for her son afterwards.

First-rate performances by the core cast especially Anita Briem add to the emotional weight of the film. Other standouts are Edda Björgrinsdóttir’s seemingly overbearing Dídí and Jóhann Sigurðsson’s turn as Saga’s gentle father.

Where the film falters in its reticence to genuinely tackle the quite serious issues it brings up. Without going into spoilers, there is a sense that either the source material, or the screenplay, wanted a tidy resolution to Saga’s issues and what caused them. It’s also bizarre to see epilepsy being treated like a disability that is one step away from mental illness.

Quake is an interesting, if tricky, film that wraps up too neatly but does explore some worthwhile topics. How trauma and illness shape identity, how motherhood can be distressing especially if a mother is prevented from being the parent she needs to be, and what it takes to truly realise self-sufficiency by excavating the past to understand the future.

Director: Tinna Hrafnsdóttir

Cast: Anita Briem, Kristín Þóra Haraldsdóttir, Edda Björgvinsdóttir

Writer: Tinna Hrafnsdóttir

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