Film Review: Victoria (★★★★)

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In one single shot and one single take, Victoria covers a lot of ground – often literally – as it takes us on a tour of Berlin, its criminal underbelly, and the moral ambiguities of people in desperate situations. The production of the film is a story in itself, though one that many find detrimental to the fiction. Striving to have the film take place in real-time and choosing the early hours of the morning, Victoria does lend itself to little vivid backstory and few moments of breathing room when the narrative takes baby steps, awaiting the larger strides.

But as the stakes rise for the characters, it also rises for the actors and the crew to not make unsalvageable mistakes. Director Sebastian Schipper only shot Victoria three times, and it was that last attempt that had the dynamics that made the film come alive. While each actor and the cinematographer are clearly confident with their choreography, both in movement and in content, in the final film they blend vivacious spirit with careful efficiency.

On a routine night one, Victoria, a Spaniard living in Germany, bonds with a group of four friends, but is eventually recruited by them as an emergency getaway driver for a bank robbery. They then have to work together to deal with the swift justice of their sloppy escape. While its central robbery is just two minutes of its 140, Victoria does not waste any time thematically. Above all, it’s a film about pushing limits. Of course, Schipper is pushing an extreme limit in ambitious film production, one that’s only been available this past decade with digital possibilities. Meanwhile, Victoria is constantly pushing small limits herself.

She’s staying up late clubbing despite having to open the cafe she works at in the morning, she’s spending time with thuggish strangers she’s initially uncomfortable with, she quietly shoplifts with Sonne – one of the friends who comes to grow on her and us, they stand in the middle of a road as a cop drives past. Everything she does is related to pushing a limit, not just instilled by herself or society, but directly too. When requested not to by the boys, she shouts on a rooftop. She talks in an elevator after Sonne jokes that it’s a rule to be silent. What feels like incidental ways to kill runtime is instead laying the thematic texture of the film.

So, what happens when those limits are breached? Victoria is coasting on a quiet edge for the time being, but the bank robbery is here as a test. As exemplified by Boxer, an ex-con who wants to forget about his past, the film is studying the point one becomes morally corrupt. Despite these individual actions of rule-breaking, the characters remain sympathetic because it’s all grounded in playful human rebellion. Resistance is simply part of individuality, and that’s well established by Schipper and the actors in order to explore their characters in a somewhat safe way at first.

Like Victoria herself, we’re initially repelled by the group of men who taunt her outside of the club at the start of the film. We root for her not to join them because they’re boisterous and seemingly dangerous, a suspicion that comes to be true. But their chemistry in the way they bond with Victoria as if she’s a sister creates a wonderful connection that overrides that prejudice. That’s a limit the film is measuring and what the second half of the film examines. In just two and a half hours of character time, we grow empathetic to sleazy characters that get under our skin more than in any other film of its conventions.

Despite having spent time in jail, even stealing cars that very night, Boxer’s lamentations make him a sympathetic character. He’s the reason the characters are boxed in a corner to do the bank robbery, and his offer of self-sacrifice later on demonstrates the compassion he’s capable of. The film isn’t interested in ego, but the group supporting each other through this crime. Boxer is the furthest character towards pushing that limit to moral corruption. They’re contrasted by the mob boss he owes money to who is certainly morally corrupt with little empathy to others. He’s the line the film draws and becoming like him is the real worst case scenario.

While Victoria simply goes with the flow for the most of the film, drawn to the boys due to a lonely void she wants to fill as well as a desire to be accepted, it’s one morally reprehensible act of taking charge of the situation in order to survive where the film comes to a thematic head. Do her actions make her morally corrupted? With the use of the media and witnesses, it studies Victoria from an inside and outside perspective. While the first hour or so of the film can strike impatience as it reveals little hints of the promised plot, the second half of the film is a panic-attack-inducing heart-stopper that more than makes up for the relative idling.

However, that sells short the magic of the first hour. Every performance is commendable the same way a participant in a long distance marathon has earned their medal. Laia Costa keeps her Victoria mostly reserved, playing off what the boys offer her, besides the film’s emotional rollercoaster of a third act that’s entirely piled on her. She does thoroughly impress in a stunning piano performance half-way into the film which I can only assume was on-camera and a result of Costa’s own hidden talent as that would be hard to fake. The sound mixing of the film is its secret hero, as it also was for the clarity of Birdman.

Frederick Lau, Victoria’s love interest Sonne, perhaps steals the show. He’s one of those characters that at first you take an immediate dislike to due to his obnoxious personality, but as he peels back these human layers of Sonne, revealing a more sincere charm, we come to trust his attachment to Victoria as beyond obvious lust. The film feels out and unroots its emotional core between their romantic pursuit, along with ideas of Victoria’s alternate life had she had a more fortunate past. Franz Rogowski as Boxer is the highlight of the supporting cast as he drives the story with unexpected sensitivity without overriding it from Costa and Lau.

Victoria will certainly draw comparisons to one-shot masterpieces Russian Ark and last year’s Best Picture winner Birdman, but it that would be wholly unfair to pit them side by side. Birdman, like its content, is like a dynamic play; meticulously rehearsed, detailed, and gorgeously visualised in every frame and transition by Emmanuel Lubezki. Russian Ark is wide, expansive, and ambitious in different ways. Victoria is intimate and rugged, teetering on documentary-esque. The vibrancy of the performances and the meat of the story keep it from feeling amateurish, though they have to submit to the graininess of darker scenes.

However, cinematographer Sturla Brandth Grovlen, aptly credited first and foremost after the cut to black, always manages to find a well composed frame after any adjustment. The film offers something no other film can which is a sense of in the moment real consequences. The actors have to self-edit and let moments of comedy, drama, reaction and revelation flow into the next. In doing so, we get into the character’s heads and mindsets, even if they’re out of frame, more than if we had the fact that the actors are going home after this scene in the back of our minds. Instead, they have to deal with every moment they give and are given.

It’s a film of few missteps, but as I usually don’t care for the type of story and these types of characters anyway, the way they’re thoroughly subverted and developed gripped me instead. While it wipes away those prejudices of the characters, so it does for its genre. The story does require a couple cheats to get it moving forward, as solutions to problems are solved off-screen where it’s clear they simply didn’t want to flesh out the detail. Fortunately the style facilitates avenues around them. However, the ending is a moral dilemma that while is organic to the narrative, it does feel extraneous to the themes after already reaching a crescendo, and a situation that feels drawn from a much lesser crime film. This doesn’t leave the film on any sour note, having already earned its graces.

Nevertheless, Victoria is one of the most pleasantly surprising marriages of style and substance, of which are both endearingly unpolished instead of overworked, that I’ve seen in a long time. It could be argued that it’s simply a gimmick, though to its credit, it was conceived and shot before Birdman was released, but it’s a film worth looking deeper at what it does in each of its moments. Despite having its collection of images within a single shot, it’s an unforgettable experience where the intricate character details carved by the actors and Schipper are the moments that shine brightest. Exhilarating and tender in equal measures, Victoria is close to a masterwork and an experiment well worth uncovering.