A decade ago, Tomas Alfredson's Let the Right One In – adapted from a novel by John Ajvide Lindqvist – won over millions by winding a vampire story in with convincing Swedish dirty realism.
This latest translation of a Lindqvist story, winner of the Un Certain Regard prize at last year’s Cannes Festival, plays similar games with equally effective results.
We are forever being told that this or that Hollywood romance is an Ugly Duckling story.
Ali Abbasi’s grim, propulsive film comes closer to the tone and substance of Hans Christian Anderson’s original story.
Eva Melander is mesmerising as Tina, an unusually perceptive customs officer at a Swedish seaport.
The film huddles closely around a personality whose courage and determination invite great empathy
Buried beneath Oscar-nominated makeup that renders her faintly Neanderthal, walking with a perennially slumped frame, she can literally smell evil from the travellers.
Placing one slick subject’s mobile phone beneath her flattened nose she detects a suspicious memory card (there are the makings of a good TV series in that scenario).
Unhappy with the world, Tina lives with a dull, but not appalling, dog fancier in a remote cabin by the woods.
She visits her dad, who is giving in to Alzheimer’s, at the weekend, but is friendlier with the circling foxes. That awkward equilibrium is shaken when she encounters a stranger somewhat like herself and gets drawn into a paedophilia case.
It is giving little away (avoiding spoilers is tricky here) to reveal that there is a genetic explanation for Tina’s abilities and for her much-ridiculed appearance.
That eventual realisation brings her temporary comfort – as she immerses herself in icy pools surrounded by austerely beautiful countryside – but she soon learns that humans have no monopoly on cruelty.
Such material invites endless allegorical interpretation.
You can read Border as a comment on colonialism, a more general musing on “othering” or a study of commonplace loneliness.
The familiar arguments about how to respond to oppression are aired: revenge or resistance.
None of this would matter if the core story were not so well told.
Queasier readers should be aware that there are some unsettling images, but the film huddles closely around a personality whose courage and determination invite great empathy.
Melander’s ability to open up Tina’s sad interior somehow makes an everyman of this most peculiar of outsiders.
She is a character for the ages.
Opens March 8th