What is the story about?
Mona Juul, a Norwegian diplomat who works in the Ministry of External Affairs, and her husband, Terje Rod-Larsen, a sociologist working with the Fafo Institute, attempt to bring both Israel and Palestine to the negotiating table in secret, away from the prying eyes of the American government. The film documents how, over a period of several months in 1993, Mona and Terje aided both parties to engage in negotiations for peace in a secret manor house in Oslo.
It is one thing for a filmmaker to dramatize events around a real-life feat of diplomacy, but it is quite another to make the film so drab and "safe" that the film loses its punch. The good folks at HBO must have felt that the current tensions between Israel and Palestine were probably good news for Oslo and its message. Adapted by acclaimed American playwright J.T. Rogers from his own Broadway hit, the film chooses to focus on the secret negotiations leading up to the signing of the 1993 Oslo Accords. To his credit, Rogers' writing does a fine job of etching out the motivations and tics of the various characters.
Unfortunately, however, even though the supposed three-hour runtime of the play is whittled down to a couple of hours as a film, Rogers' screenplay is too inert and fussy with regard to political correctness. The USA is never mentioned as anything but troublesome, and yet everyone at the negotiating table tries to hammer out an agreement in order to appear civil in front of the Americans. Director Bartlett Sher, who also directed Rogers' play on stage, has his own problems. In order to make the film not resemble a play, Sher inserts a number of cinematic devices, such as images of Mona and Terje running for their lives in a war-torn Gaza. However, elements of melodrama, which made the play work, seem very ill-fitting in the film, and take away a lot of the punch from the sequences of hard-nosed negotiations which bristle with dramatic tension. In that sense, Oslo becomes an opportunity lost. It's a decent film which can be watched for its performances, but one wishes it had tried to be something greater.
The performances are great. Ruth Wilson and Andrew Scott bring a mix of nervous energy, cultivated subtlety and hand-wringing frustrations to their roles of Mona and Terje. Salim Dau is the scene-stealer as Ahmed Qurei, the Finance Minister of the PLO, and the foremost negotiator from the Palestinian side, while Waleed Zuaiter lends able support as his Marxist deputy, Hassan. Jeff Wilbusch is assured as Uri Savir, the director-general of the Israeli foreign ministry, while Igal Naor is expectedly hard-nosed as Joel Singer, the legal adviser to the ministry.
Music & Other Departments
Janusz Kaminski's cinematography is surprisingly dull here compared to his past work on movies such as Lincoln and Munich, with too many ultra-wide shots to emphasize the vastness of the manor. Michael Carlin's production design is expectedly low-key.
The sequences at the negotiating table are well-done, and Sher frames them in such a way so that the strengths and vulnerabilities of both sides are in focus.
There are no grand cinematic flourishes, with the entire film progressing like a play. Even though Sher tries hard, the tone of the film never transcends its source material.
Also, the politics of the film is very simplistic, in spite of its political correctness. The makers of the film choose to focus on the Oslo Accords, simply because it was the only time in history when the Israelis, Palestinians, Norwegians and Americans ended up looking good in their quest for peace. Even though the failure of the talks is shown as historical footnotes at the end, Sher and his team hit the brakes on the narrative in search of a safe, convenient ending.
Did I enjoy it?
I enjoyed the performances and some of the portions. However, the whole film could have been much better.
Do I recommend it?
You can give this a one-time watch for the performances. But it's nothing memorable.