Criticism: Oslo wonders again why Israelis and Palestinians can’t get along
History has the gift of giving new relevance to the oldest works of art. Not that OsloTony-winning JT Rogers’ docudrama on the deal between the Israelis and the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) secretly negotiated in Oslo in 1993 is all that old (it was created in off Broadway in 2016).
But a new film adaptation of the play, which premieres on HBO on Saturday, May 29, comes just after a recent spike in violence between Israel and the Palestinian militant group Hamas, giving it new relevance. While recent events may renew the despair among some that Israelis and Palestinians will one day find a path to peace, the film features a brief and brilliant moment when such reconciliation seemed at hand.
The base of Oslo is factual: As the United States publicly negotiated a peace deal between Israel and the PLO, Norwegian diplomatic couple Terje Rød-Larsen (played in the film by Andrew Scott) and Mona Juul (Ruth Wilson) facilitated a series of roundabout negotiations between representatives of the two sides which ultimately made an agreement possible.
But since not much is known about what happened behind the closed doors of these discussions, Rogers’ play, as he puts it in his introduction to the published script, is less concerned with the facts than with ” mind of these real events – their madness, their fear, their joy and their sorrow. “So, Oslo deserves to be considered a work of speculative fiction – and at this level, years away from its very famous Lincoln Center tracks off Broadway and Broadway, that leaves a little to be desired.
At one point, both in the play and in the film, Terje articulates her own “gradualist” philosophy of diplomacy, a philosophy which, in stark contrast to the more public “totalist” approach, favors the personal over the personal. the organization. If only Rogers’ approach to staff didn’t seem so worn out. So real were PLO Finance Minister Ahmed Qurie (Salim Dau) and Israeli Foreign Ministry Director General Uri Savir (Jeff Wilbusch, decked out like a rock star by designer Catherine Zuber), they and many others parts involved are written and played out as little more than large and hearty types.
Rogers’ characterizations of Terje and Mona are hardly more dimensional. Beyond Terje’s desire to see his own philosophy put into action, one barely has any idea of him as a human being. Scott’s performance hints at a playful side, which is offset by the solemn tone adopted by director Bartlett Sher (who also directed the New York stage productions).
More than in the play, Mona becomes the emotional center of the film, all the more played out with light-eyed gravity by Wilson. To that end, Rogers adds an additional wartime flashback, revealed in pieces throughout the film, that sketches a clearer motivation for his own investment in the success of these talks. But even this flashback – a moment when Mona sees an Israeli soldier and a Palestinian suicide bomber staring into each other’s eyes just before another Israeli soldier brings the Palestinian out – suggests an underlying blandness to the project as a whole.
A more complex view of “shared humanity” might have recognized the long-standing political and cultural resentments that made peace between Israelis and Palestinians so difficult. Instead, Rogers’ vision never goes beyond clichés, like people from opposite camps who bond over food and joke about statesmen, or an Israeli and Palestinian representative finding out that they both have daughters named Maya. In Oslo, humanism is reduced to “we are one” greeting card feelings.
Sher tries to sell Rogers’ perspective as deep, age-old wisdom, directing the film in a slow, measured style that weighs everything down. (This does not promote Rogers’ brutal attempts at irreverent humor.) Thanks in large part to cinematographer Janusz Kaminski, Oslo boasts an impressive burnished appearance, with the camera sliding gracefully through Michael Carlin’s handsome production design. But the fact that Kaminski is a frequent collaborator with Steven Spielberg, an executive producer of that film, can’t help but remind us of Spielberg’s superior drama of 2005. Munich, a truly disturbing historical drama about Israeli-Palestinian relations that shames Rogers’ well-meaning Hallmark platitudes.