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Insomnia (1997): The Criterion Collection Blu-ray + DVD Dual-Format Edition Review

Insomnia (1997) movie poster Insomnia

US Theatrical Release: May 29, 1998 (Norwegian Release: March 14, 1997) / Running Time: 96 Minutes / Rating: Not Rated

Director: Erik Skjoldbjærg / Writers: Nikolaj Frobenius, Erik Skjoldbjærg

Cast: Stellan Skarsgård (Jonas Engström), Sverre Anker Ousdal (Erik Vik), Bjørn Floberg (Jon Holt), Gisken Armand (Hilde Hagen), Maria Bonnevie (Ane), Kristian Fr. Fiegnschow (Arne Zakariassen), Thor Michael Aamodt (Tom Engen), Bjørn Moan (Eilert), Marianne O. Ulrichsen (Frøya Selmer), Frode Rasmussen (Chief of Police), Guri Johnson (Mia Nikolaisen), Maria Mathiesen (Tanja Lorentzen)

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The only film to date that Christopher Nolan has directed without also writing is 2002's Insomnia.
That visually bright, thematically dark Alaskan murder mystery stands as Nolan's by far lowest-rated directorial effort on the Internet Movie Database, a site whose users currently rank six of his films among the 104 greatest ever made. Nolan's third feature was well-received critically and a solid performer at the box office, but it's kind of an unremarkable stepping stone from the filmmaker's innovative name-making backwards neo-noir Memento to the start of his epic Dark Knight trilogy.

Insomnia, the 1997 Norwegian film that Nolan remade, is far less well-known and only slightly better regarded. But it does boast a spot in The Criterion Collection, as only the first of Nolan's films (Following) does.

Heavy fog causes Jonas Engström (Stellan Skarsgård), a seasoned Swedish cop in Norway, to make a fatal mistake in the original 1997 "Insomnia."

The film opens with the murder of a teenaged girl named Tanja Lorentzen. It is the work of a perfectionist, who is so exacting as to shampoo the hair of the deceased to hide evidence of his crime. The case is taken on by Jonas Engström (Stellan Skarsgård), a middle-aged Swedish cop on assignment in Norway who is jaded to the evils of the world. He examines the corpse and comes up with some leads without showing the slightest bit of emotion.

Pursuing one of the leads -- a bag left behind near the murder scene -- in thick fog, Engström accidentally shoots and kills his good-natured partner (Sverre Anker Ousdal) of just over one year. Soon, Tanja's murder takes a backseat to Engström's mistake, which he pins on the elusive suspect while taking extreme measures to cover his tracks.

All the while, Engström is troubled by a reality of summer in Norway, which brings close to 24 hours of sunlight. The detective isn't sleeping and is growing worse for the wear. Haunted by visions of his slain partner, Engström tries his hardest to block the daylight from his hotel room with blankets and masking tape. But his restlessness seems to go deeper than the sun at the window. And when he alone finds the killer, he doesn't make an arrest but instead meets him in secret and starts formulating a plan to pass the blame to someone else.

Eilert (Bjørn Moan), the boyfriend of the deceased, claims innocence under questioning by Engström (Stellan Skarsgård). Jonas Engström (Stellan Skarsgård) is plagued by the titular insomnia, which he can only partly blame on Norway's all-hours summer sunlight.

The feature debut of director/co-writer Erik Skjoldbjærg, who has yet to have a strong follow-up either back home or in the US (where he directed Prozac Nation), Insomnia is an absorbing thriller. Visually striking with a ghastly bright palette instead of the dark tones usually reserved for the genre,
the film effectively conveys the weariness and world-weariness of its antihero, serving to distinguish a procedural mystery where the killer is hardly in doubt.

This original Insomnia was released to just a few US theaters in May of 1998, fourteen months after its native release in Norway and not long after films like Breaking the Waves and Good Will Hunting made Skarsgård familiar to American moviegoers. It grossed nearly a quarter of a million dollars in North America to glowing reviews, while Nolan's opened four years later with Oscar winners Al Pacino, Robin Williams, and Hilary Swank as its leads.

Fifteen years and nine days after bringing the original Insomnia to DVD in North America, The Criterion Collection revisits it today in a new 1-disc DVD and the two-disc Blu-ray + DVD Dual-Format Edition reviewed here, each still carrying #47 on its spine.

Insomnia (1997): The Criterion Collection Blu-ray + DVD Dual Format Edition cover art -- click to buy from Amazon.com Blu-ray & DVD Details

1.85:1 Widescreen (DVD Anamorphic)
BD: 2.0 DTS-HD MA (Norwegian)
DVD: Dolby Surround 2.0 (Norwegian) Subtitles: English
Not Closed Captioned; Norwegian Extras Subtitled in English
Release Date: July 22, 2014
Suggested Retail Price: $39.95
Two single-sided, dual-layered discs (BD-50 and DVD-9)
Clear Keepcase
Also available on DVD ($24.95 SRP) and on Amazon Instant Video
Previously released as Criterion Collection DVD ($29.95 SRP; July 13, 1999)

VIDEO and AUDIO

I have no doubt that the Blu-ray and even the new DVD represent a significant upgrade in picture quality over Criterion's 15-year-old DVD. Insomnia looks terrific in high definition, its bright 1.85:1 picture boasting the sharpness and clarity of a brand new film. The frame lacks focus on occasion, but that appears to be a product of the camerawork and not Criterion's characteristically high-caliber mastering.

The Norwegian soundtrack is offered only in 2.0 DTS-HD master audio. It is a perfectly fine mix, with music, score and effects co-existing nicely and staying crisp. The white English subtitles are easy to read and grammatically sound. It's interesting how much different Skarsgård sounds in Swedish and his apparently accented Norwegian than he does in his American films.

Daylight peeks in behind director Erik Skjoldbjærg and actor Stellan Skarsgård in this 2014 conversation. Sick old Uncle Alf doesn't want to see a doctor in Erik Skjoldbjærg's 1993 short "Near Winter."

BONUS FEATURES, MENUS, PACKAGING and DESIGN

The same on each disc (but presented in HD on Blu-ray), the bonus features begin with a brand new conversation
between Stellan Skarsgård and director Erik Skjoldbjærg (20:57). Recorded January 2014 in Oslo, this English language chat finds the two reflecting on this film, its screenplay's evolution, Skjoldbjærg's ideas and influences, Skarsgård's character and performance, the film's tones, and the notion of "Nordic noir."

Next, we find two shorts Skjoldbjærg made prior to Insomnia as a student at London's National Film and Television School. Long for shorts, each runs a half-hour and looks much older than it really is.

From 1993, Near Winter (34:06) finds a young Norwegian man returning from England with his new girlfriend to visit his sick, weakening Uncle Alf, a stubborn farmer who resists getting medical treatment. Slow but interesting, it is presented largely in Norwegian with burned-in English subtitles.

A man under investigation grows increasingly guilty in Erik Skjoldbjærg's 1994 short "Close to Home." Jonas Engström (Stellan Skarsgård) looks even paler than usual on the Blu-ray's lightened top menu.

Nearer in tone to the film and just plain better, 1994's arresting Close to Home (30:35) sees an English translator coming to the aid of a bullied teenaged girl late one night. The next morning, he is questioned by detectives in the girl's rape. With us uncertain of his innocence, the man grows consumed with guilt.

Finally, Insomnia's Norwegian trailer (1:14) is included.
This was the only bonus feature included on Criterion's previous DVD, which also apparently held a TV spot that seems to have been dropped here.

The menu plays excerpts of the ethereal score over lightened clips and a blurred title. The Blu-ray is equipped with bookmarking and resuming capabilities.

Across from the two discs, each given a distinct label in the spirit of the cover artwork, one of Criterion's standard clear keepcases holds a substantial, extensively-illustrated booklet. Besides basic information about the film and this release, the companion includes "Unbearable Lightness", a new essay by British critic Jonathan Romney. A compelling read, it analyzes the film's plot, characters, whiteness, style, significance within the context of Norwegian cinema, and differences from Nolan's US remake.

On a Norwegian cable car, detective Jonas Engstrom (Stellan Skarsgård) confronts author and suspected killer Jon Holt (Bjørn Floberg).

CLOSING THOUGHTS

The original Norwegian Insomnia presents a dark, disturbing story in an engaging fashion and predominantly white color palette. Not noticeably better or worse than Christopher Nolan's remake, which stays pretty close to it, this thriller will disappoint those looking for sympathetic, redeemable characters and a happy ending but should excite those whose dramatic tastes run a bit macabre.

Criterion's Blu-ray + DVD combo offers exquisite picture and sound, a nice new chat between the film's director and star, two intriguing half-hour short films, and a typically strong essay booklet. In every one of those areas, this edition appears to improve upon Criterion's 1999 DVD, giving this clear upgrade value for those who appreciate the film enough to own it. This new release also makes for a strong but pricey first-time purchase.

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Directed by Erik Skjoldbjærg: Prozac Nation

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Reviewed July 22, 2014.



Text copyright 2014 DVDizzy.com. Images copyright 1997 Norsk Film AS, Nordic Screen Production and 2014 The Criterion Collection.
Unauthorized reproduction prohibited.