New in films that unexpectedly leave you completely satisfied and slightly breathless: Victoria, a two-hour, one-shot, action-drama from Director Sebastian Schipper. It’s a film that takes you all over the late-night streets of Berlin as the sun slowly creeps up and the fallout from a chance encounter continues to get more and more intense until the very end. The film is stylish without ever tipping into gimmickry, benefiting from a rich, detailed story that unfolds with an impeccable sense of pace, demanding the world from the few actors it follows, all of whom deliver strong and razor-sharp performances as their after-hours adventure tracks in real time.
We begin by following Victoria (Laia Costa), a Spanish expat in Berlin who leads us through a blinding series of pure white strobes in a dank techno nightclub before bringing us out onto the street. The camera bobs and weaves behind and in front of our heroine, floating just above her as she steps out into the eerily quiet night and sets off to open up the cafe at which she works.
Open to whatever comes her way, Victoria runs into Sonne (Frederick Lau) and his friends Fuss (Max Mauff), Boxer (Franz Rogowski), and Blinker (Burak Yigit) who switch between jacking a car and harmlessly flirting with Victoria. Nothing is overplayed here; the conversation feeling real and natural, leading her back to a rooftop with the boys to drink, chat, and bond.
There is tension in the air, but the story isn’t in any rush to take you out of the welcoming comfort zone it creates through relatable, likeable characters. With Victoria in their orbit, the group of friends endear themselves to her, in particular Sonne who shares a deep and meaningful, one-on-one conversation with her in the cafe she means to open for business. The on-screen chemistry between Costa and Lau is a substantial part of the film’s success, keeping things lively and emotional even when dialogue tends to dwindle.
The warmth between them leads Victoria to blindly accept a plea for help when Boxer pops back into the picture to frantically rush Sonne into a secret rendezvous. Victoria unknowingly agrees to fill a necessary fourth spot in the groups obligation to rob a bank, brought about by a debt Boxer owes to a man who used to protect him while he was in prison.
With action setting in, the film could have easily switched from gritty realism to contrived blockbuster, but it admirably maintains it’s sense of naturalism throughout, only really requiring a suspension of disbelief in a scene that makes Berlin policemen seem painfully clumsy.
Cinematographer Sturla Brandth Grøvlen is MVP here, which may be why his name appears first in the credits. Grøvlen is clever with his approach to the one-take aesthetic, panning the camera around characters, and either remaining still or conveying an appropriate amount of chaos with shaky hand-held efficiency. He adapts to the increasingly tense situation as well as the actors themselves, channeling the frenetic energy with which this group of amateur criminals parade the streets of Berlin.
Another necessary asset here is German composer Nils Frahm who is called upon when Schipper needs to smartly wedge a shift in atmosphere into a film that is completely devoid of any cuts whatsoever. The only editing involved is a mute of dialogue as Frahm brings in his soothing electronic score to help build some of the film’s best sequences, like a post-heist celebration in a nightclub veering towards a dreamscape, driven by the composer’s quiet, slow-motion piano notes that drown out the muffled bass of the underground rave.
Style and substance are equally measured, bringing a balance to this masterful film that is sustained until the very last scene, where that cut you’ve half been begging for, just to give you relief from all the adrenaline, finally gives way to the credits. Victoria proves much more than just technical distinction, fueled by an immediacy that’s strung throughout a well-acted, well-written story that’s likely to float around in your head well after your first watch.
Review Score: FIVE STARS (OUT OF FIVE)
Running time: 140 minutes
Victoria is screening at limited Australian theaters from March.
This review was originally published as coverage of last year’s Sydney Film Festival.