Thelma review: Thrilling but chilly tale of lesbianism and Christianity

Eponymous heroine is struggling to reconcile supernatural abilities – and the result is mesmerising

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Director: Joachim Trier
Cert: Club
Genre: Horror
Starring: Eili Harboe, Kaya Wilkins, Henrik Rafaelsen, Ellen Dorrit Petersen, Grethe Eltervag
Running Time: 1 hr 54 mins

A young girl and her father wander across a frozen lake and into a snowy forest. Spying a fawn through the woods, he raises his rifle, only to point it at the back of his daughter’s head, before losing his nerve.

Having made a big splash in the Anglophone world with the Gabriel Byrne vehicle Louder Than Bombs, hot-shot director Joachim Trier returns to his hometown for this chilly, lesbian woke-horror.

Thelma (Eili Harboe) has lived a sheltered life when she arrives at university in Oslo. Her overprotective fundamentalist Christian parents call her several times a day. They hover, too, over her virtual life. "I see you've made new friends on Facebook, " observes her father, Trond (Henrik Rafaelsen), whom we immediately recognise from the nerve-wrecking opening hunting scene.

Thelma’s sorrowful mother, Unni (Ellen Dorrit Petersen), is in a wheelchair and prone to bouts of depression. Family get-togethers are painful. When Thelma gently suggests that young Earth creationism is an odd belief, she is chastised as a judgmental know-it-all by Trond.


One day in the library, Thelma looks around and sees a fellow student named Anja (Kaya Wilkins) smile at her, a gesture that appears to bring about an epileptic seizure. At the same moment, a bird crashes into the window. The eponymous heroine, we soon divine, is struggling to reconcile repressed lesbianism and Christianity. But is there something more to her unexplained fits and strange animal magnetism?

In Thelma, Trier and regular co-writer Eskil Vogt (Blind) ponder monstrousness. With a nod to the Golden Age science fiction of Jerome Bixby, the Norwegian entry for the Best Foreign Language Film at next year's Academy Awards, smoulders its way toward art horror. Unlike, however, Get Out and Raw, Thelma privileges Nordic seriousness over knowing winks and jinx.

The film's denouement provides satisfactory answers and many more questions. DOP Jakob Ihre makes fascinating tableaux from dehumanising overhead shots, remote landscapes, and strange compositions with snakes and birds.

Petersen and Rafaelsen are simultaneously concerned and menacing as the helicopter parents. Both Eili Harboe and Kaya Wilkins maintain an enigmatic, wide-eyed blankness as the possibly star-crossed lovers. Mesmerising and thrilling.

Tara Brady

Tara Brady

Tara Brady, a contributor to The Irish Times, is a writer and film critic