Returning to Iceland
Anita Briem: Getting new eyes
“This film is not only hugely close to my heart, in terms of the story and the character, but working on it has been a pivotal event. It changed my life.”
Anita Briem is talking about her new film, Quake, which is based on the best-selling novel Grand Mal by Auður Jónsdóttir. Quake was the film that brought her back to her native Iceland after 14 years of living and working in LA – something, she says, she never thought would happen. “I was born and raised here in Iceland, but by the time I was 14 or 15… it was starting to feel incredibly claustrophobic. Just like with any small-town community, I felt uncomfortable at how everybody knew everyone else’s business.”
Briem’s career began treading the boards with the National Theatre of Iceland. “I was convinced,” she laughs, “that I was a grown-up at nine, when I got my first acting job. I told my parents, ‘I’m a working woman now, so you can’t drive me to school’. I insisted on taking a bus and my mum let me, but still secretly drove behind the bus to make sure I was okay!”
Flying the nest At 16, Briem moved to London to study and then went onto the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art (RADA). “It was a huge moment of growth. When I came to London, all of a sudden I was a blank canvas. I didn’t have anyone’s opinion on what I could and couldn’t do hanging over me. That was incredibly liberating and I was able to explore lots of aspects of myself that I’d been convinced I wasn’t very good at. To be honest, I imagined I would stay in London forever, but then work took me to America and I started a whole new chapter.”
2006 saw her starring in the American police procedural The Evidence, followed by playing Jane Seymour in Showtime’s smash hit series The Tudors. Then, in 2008, she had her first taste of the action blockbuster, starring opposite Brendan Fraser in Journey to the Centre of the Earth.
“It’s funny, because in Iceland I was terrible in gym class,” Briem says. “I would just get six out of ten every time for anything to do with movement. But at RADA, I started training and I thought it was an amazing thing to have these new tools to tell a story in a physical capacity.” She loved it so much that she won the John Barton Award for Stage Fighting. “That confidence in my physicality definitely helped with a film like Journey because, even though I’m five foot four and very petite, from the training I had had, I felt strong. I felt capable. And playing next to Brendan Frazer, who is really, really tall, that was a good attribute for my character, Hannah, to have. She didn’t know her own size and was big in spirit.”
Home sweet home Briem returned to her native shores in 2019 to shoot a series called The Minister. “I was here for six months with my daughter and creatively, socially — being close to my family, which I hadn’t been in a really long time — it just changed everything. It hit me like a thunderbolt: I need to be here. But I hadn’t quite figured things out, because I’m married to a Greek-American and we were building a house in LA, so moving wasn’t exactly on the books!”
Briem had met Tinna Hrafnsdóttir while working on The Minister, and Hrafnsdóttir asked her to audition for a feature she was directing called Quake. Quake tells the story of Saga (Briem), a single mother who is hit by a fierce epileptic ‘brain quake’ that results in significant memory loss. Afraid of losing her son, Saga
From the film Quake. Photo: Lilja Jónsdóttir
attempts to hide her condition. But with her new world-view come new beginnings, and a revelation from the past that may help heal old wounds.
It’s a film that has a lot to say, especially at a time when women’s rights are under attack. At the start of the film, Saga has zero agency. Her independence has been taken from her by her parents, by her ex, and by the authorities. But slowly, she blossoms. “What’s so interesting is that the event that takes her memory also gives her the ability to see the world with new eyes, and all the things that she would have accepted before don’t make any sense to her now,” reflects Briem. “So she’s challenging authority and her family – everything, really – because all of those rules and preconceptions have been stripped away.”
She continues: “I loved the screenplay, I loved the book, and the idea of doing this film harmonised with my other experiences towards this big epiphany I was having. And it’s so different from anything I’ve done before. Different textually, with this raw character. You see the story almost as though you’re inside her head… But you’re never spoon-fed. There’s a lot of nuance and subtlety, so that the audience can really put themselves in Saga’s shoes.”
Saga’s ‘new eyes’ turned out to be a gift for Briem too. After filming Quake, the plan was to head back to LA, but then Covid arrived in Iceland. “No one knew what was going on, but my daughter was still in school here and I felt that I could trust the news, and not have to decipher what’s a lie and what’s a trick. So it was actually a real silver-lining. I’d been dreading going back because I really wanted to stay, and now I couldn’t go back. So I stayed and then went straight into another film in the summer. And by then I was definitely not going back! In fact, I haven’t been back at all.”
Briem is speaking from her home in Iceland, unwinding with a glass of wine after what she calls an “interesting day” on set. Which, from what she says, is exactly how she likes it.
Quakehad its World Premiere at Tallinn Black Nights Film Festival and was released in Iceland in January 2022.
On the new music front, it’s all about the female artists in our culture issue this month.
Swedish artist GRANT is out with something of a stunner of a new single, Seriously, Let’s Ride Or Die. It’s a love song with an edge to its lyrics that ends up being wholly relatable. This has a retro Americana feel to it, while simultaneously being a modern ballad with a more universal appeal. There’s a lot of beauty to be unearthed in its three minutes.
New music has also arrived from the Danish artist Sarah Sophie Malmros, known as SASO for the purposes of her pop career. Her latest single I’m So Bored is a pulsating electro-pop tune that seems to pick up pace as it goes along, taking you with it on its neon-drenched journey. Think Robyn at her most pop, meets Carly Rae Jepsen at her most Scandipop! Hailing from Västerås in Sweden, 21-yearold RONIA has been writing and producing her own music for a while, and now finally releases the first fruits of that labour – her debut single Ghost. It serves as a suitably powerful introduction to a new artist, and is just as impactful as that first impression needs to be. It’s dark, but its darkness has a hint of decadence to it. And it’s the kind of debut single that leaves you wondering what on earth (or out of this earth) could possibly be coming next.
Finally, with Island of the Sun, Winona Oak has penned a love song to Sweden’s nature; in particular Sollerön, from where she hails. She uses the island, which is located on the Siljan lake in Dalarna, central Sweden, as a metaphor for a place where everything is peaceful and simple: a happy place within ourselves or in a relationship, and a bittersweet yearning for somewhere
we ache to go to again. The resulting listen is quite a captivating one, as you can imagine.
Swedes love regulations. This is particularly true when it comes to workers’ rights, both real and assumed. Business opening hours are strict and sometimes unhelpful. In Sweden, when the computer says no, it really says no.
Recently, I had a stopover at the airport in Stockholm, lasting between midnight and 4am. Arriving, everything was exactly as I had dreaded it would be. The airport was deserted. Shops were closed, their shutters pulled down; desks stood empty, lights were switched off. Here and there, people were sleeping in dim corners, slumped miserably over their luggage, waiting for the country to reboot.
Anxiety churned in my stomach as I looked for a space – any space – that seemed less lonely, less dark, where I could spend the next four hours. And then I thought I heard music. Was the despair making me hallucinate? Following the sound, I rounded a corner and there it was, bathed in light and with its speakers blaring: one very much open café.
Its owner was frantically plating up refreshments to dazed Swedes, drawn to the light like thankful moths. ‘Yes?’ he shouted at me, then proceeded to recommend green tea instead of black, advising that ‘green tea is good for you’. He was right, it was good for me. It seemed to be good for all of us – for the man next to me ordering hourly rounds of lasagne, for the young couple quietly celebrating their trip with beers and buns, and for the lone rocker who looked both surprised and pleased to be awake, watching Netflix on his phone.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m all for regulations. But at two in the morning, when hungry and alone, I’ve never been more grateful to find a country I thought I knew to be open to change.
Maria Smedstad moved to the UK from Sweden in 1994. She received a degree in Illustration in 2001, before settling in the capital as a freelance cartoonist, creating the autobiographical cartoon Em. Maria writes a column on the trials and tribulations of life as a Swede in the UK.
Scandinavian Culture Calendar
–Where to go, what to see? It’s all happening here!
Oslo International Church Music Festival (19-27 March and 3-11 September) The Oslo International Church Music Festival enters its 22nd year with a programme consisting of both traditional and contemporary elements. Examples of the latter include Tyler Futrell’s new Stabat Mater, and Together by Henrik Hellstenius, a professor of composition at the Norwegian Academy of Music and EDVARD Prize winner. The festival takes place in two segments this year, and the closing concert for the March segment is a new St. Matthew Passion from the Danish composer Bent Sørensen. Locations around Oslo oicmf.no
Sustainable Colour (until 27 March) You might already have some knowledge of the environmental impact of the fabric in your clothes, but what about the dyes that were used in making them? The Design Museum in Helsinki explores the trends of dyeing and how natural dyes can be used to improve the sustainability of the fashion industry. Korkeavuorenkatu 23, Helsinki designmuseum.fi
Nordic Exposure season (5 March to 1 May) Even if you find yourself in London this spring, that doesn’t mean you’ll need to miss out on all the Scandi fun! The arts and culture venue Jacksons Lane is putting on a season of Nordic performances, from adaptations of fairytales to poetic circus and magical puppetry, with artists representing Finland, Denmark, Norway, Sweden, Iceland and the Faroe Islands. Check out the free photo exhibition on winter swimming while you are there. 269a Archway Road, London N6 5AA jacksonslane.org.uk
Migration. Photo: Carl Ander Omar Victor Diop (until 22 May) Omar Victor Diop (b. 1980) is a Senegalese photographer whose works also explore fashion, fine art and design. The Turku Art Museum’s spring exhibition explores three key bodies inspired by Western portraiture, the struggle for Black freedom and the climate crisis on the African continent. In addition, you will have the chance to see Windrush, commissioned to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the arrival
Allegoria4,by Omar Victor Diop. Photo courtesy of MAGNIN-A, Paris
of the HMT Empire Windrush to the UK, for the first time. Aurakatu 26, Turku turuntaidemuseo.fi
Migration – the Journey of Objects (until 28 August) The Röhsska Museum of Design and Craft, which opened in 1916 in Gothenburg, is the only museum of its kind in Sweden. Its collection comprises some 50,000 artefacts, from the ancient to the contemporary. But how did some of those objects end up there? And how have they been used to spread ideas about design? Vasagatan 37-39, Gothenburg rohsska.se
A Space Saga (until 4 September) How to build a structure suited for space? SAGA Space Architects, whose aim is to make space livable, have attempted to answer the question by constructing
Design Museum. Photo: Otso Kaijaluoto
Dansk Arkitektur Center. Photo: Rasmus Hjortshøj
Nordic Exposure season at Jacksons Lane. Photo: Tim Easton
a lunar habitat, LUNARK. The habitat, inspired in its design by Japanese origami, was tested in 2020 in North Greenland to explore the psychological effects of isolation, and now you can see the structure for yourself at the Danish Architecture Centre. Bryghuspladsen 10, Copenhagen dac.dk
Deichman Bjørvika library These days, libraries are about much more than borrowing books and quiet study. Pop by Deichman Bjørvika, the Oslo library that was recently awarded the prestigious Public Library of the Year award by the International Federation of Library Associations and Institutions (IFLA) thanks to its modern design and user-friendliness. In addition to books, the space offers youth theatre and role-playing classes, IT support and even literary therapy. Anne-Cath. Vestlys plass 1, Oslo deichman.no
ASpaceSaga. Photo: Claus Troelsgaard