Top 10 films of our lifetime #8: Let The Right One In
17th September 2014
Number #8 on the countdown of the Top 10 films of our lifetime is the only foreign language film to make the grade. That doesn't mean we're not a continental bunch, however: I've been to Iceland, which is a bit like Sweden, and I walked past a cinema (it was showing Dawn Of The Planet Of The Apes, which I'd already seen, making me feel like a cinephile) - Ali.
Director: Tomas Alfredson / Cast: Kåre Hedebrant, Lina Leandersson, Per Ragnar
Writer: John Ajvide Lindqvist / Cinematography: Hoyte Van Hoytema
|onfession: I've never seen a Twilight film. I haven't witnessed a single moment of the entire franchise, and in all honesty I'm not actually sure how many films there are or if it's finished yet. I don't even know if I'm Team Edward or Team The Other One.
Maybe that's because I felt like the series wasn't really aimed at me; after all I do not own a vagina and I was born in ye olde 20th century. A more likely reason for my ambivalence towards R-Pattz, K-Stew and the one who looks like an alpaca, though, is that in my opinion the definitive human / vampire love story was made around the same time as Twilight, and it's so untouchably perfect that anything else seems like weak Ribena compared to its rich, dark blood. So if we have to take sides, then you can keep your sparkling cheekbones and vegetarian vampires: I'm Team Oskar and Eli. I choose Let The Right One In.
Adapted by novelist John Ajvide Lindqvist from his own book and directed by Tomas Alfredson, Let The Right One In was released in early 2009 to the kind of box office that befits a Swedish film directed by and starring nobody that anyone outside Sweden had heard of. Nevertheless, it met with immediate critical acclaim and has since come to be widely regarded as something of a masterpiece, its crowning glory obviously being its appearance at number eight in The Shiznit's Top Ten Films Of 2004-2014. Far be it from me to argue with that kind of accolade, but personally I think it's at least seven places too low on the list. When Lindqvist introduced its 2008 Film 4 Frightfest screening, he remarked that "anyone who doesn't like this film is an evil person", and I genuinely don't think he was kidding.
That's because despite some of the horrific things that happen during its runtime (mostly crammed into thirty unforgettable seconds towards the end), Let The Right One In is primarily a tender and beautiful love story, and you would have to be a total monster not to love it unconditionally. 12-year-old Oskar is a fragile, lonely, bullied boy whose estranged parents are indifferent to his problems, while kind-of-12-year-old Eli is the new girl on the block with issues beyond imagination. Their friendship, appropriately borne out of a moment of fantasy violence as Eli watches Oskar exact imaginary revenge on his tormentors, blossoms delicately and convincingly, and - crucially - without a moment of bad taste. Few films could get away with two naked children in bed, one of whom is actually a castrated 200-year-old male vampire, without accusations of gross indecency, but this one does.
Perhaps it's because we see much of the story through Oskar's eyes, and he's probably the most innocent character ever to lead a film. So ridiculously pale and blond as to make even purity seem grubby, Oskar's innocence allows him to unquestioningly accept everything that happens as standard daily fare, including the eventual realisation that his new BFF is one of the walking undead. Employed intelligently, it's an invaluable storytelling tool: when characters acknowledge the absurd without question, it negates the need for plodding exposition.
Oskar's naïvety attracts Eli, but it's also his greatest weakness; so accustomed is he to the treatment he gets from the school bullies that rather than crying after finding his stolen trousers dumped in a urinal and soaked in piss, he hums a little tune to himself on the way home. It takes Eli to persuade him that there's an alternative, and it's after they sleep together (in the literal sense of the phrase, but it's easy to see it as a metaphor for the consummation of their relationship) that the worm turns, and so does the film: Oskar fights back, Eli's dark deeds are discovered and nothing will ever be the same again.
Tomas Alfredson directs Let The Right One In with almost supernatural control. Working from Lindqvist's script, expertly filleted from his novel, Alfredson pitches every moment of horror and trope of vampire lore with the accuracy of a marksman, slowly but inexorably building towards that triumphant and deliriously satisfying swimming pool scene. But it's the smaller grace notes that work to unsettle: Eli's first ever-so-slightly unnatural jump down from the climbing frame; a split-second shot of her cat-like pupils; her suddenly ancient face, glimpsed for a moment then gone, leaving us wondering whether we saw it or imagined it.
It's also impossible to underestimate the contribution of the film's two young leads, Kåre Hedebrant and Lina Leandersson. Under Alfredson's direction, they break your heart with the smallest gestures: Oskar smelling his absent dad's fleece makes his situation crushingly real, while Leandersson, eleven years old at the time of filming, portrays the sadness of Eli's immortality and the thrill of feeling like a child for the first time in centuries so convincingly that you can't help but feel sympathy for the devil.
Let The Right One In ends as it begins, with Oskar staring out of a window. But where the opening was heavy with darkness, ennui and despair, the ending brings the promise of a bright new day. It's an ambiguous climax from which many viewers took their own conclusions; so much so that John Ajvide Lindqvist penned a gorgeous epilogue-slash-sequel, the short story Let The Old Dreams Die, to clear up any confusion about what the future held for Eli and Oskar. It's a heartbreaking tale, balancing love, tragedy and the horror of the everyday to devastating effect. A more fitting tribute to his original story and the film it begat is hard to imagine (the American remake Let Me In, though perfectly serviceable for those unfamiliar with the original, certainly isn't it). Don't expect a film of Let The Old Dreams Die though; Let The Right One In stands alone as a self-contained piece, perfectly preserved in the freezing snow of a Swedish winter. May it stay forever young.
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