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A Winter Diving Expedition Goes Wrong in Shivery Scandinavian Thriller 'Breaking Surface'

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COLD COMFORT Gammel plays a woman who must beat the clock to save her sister, trapped underwater, in Hedén's Scandinavian survival thriller. - COURTESY OF ANNA PATAKINA/MUSIC BOX FILMS
  • Courtesy Of Anna Patakina/music Box Films
  • COLD COMFORT Gammel plays a woman who must beat the clock to save her sister, trapped underwater, in Hedén's Scandinavian survival thriller.

Our streaming entertainment options are overwhelming — and not always easy to sort through. This week, I watched the 2020 Swedish/Norwegian survival thriller Breaking Surface, which streams from January 22 through 31 as part of the Split/Screen series, a virtual cinema collaboration of the Middlebury New Filmmakers Festival and Vermont International Film Foundation. Find more info at vtiff.org or middfilmfest.org.

The deal

Ida (Moa Gammel) and Tuva (Madeleine Martin) are half sisters who have been diving with their mother (Trine Wiggen) since childhood. Now the freewheeling Tuva makes her living doing underwater maintenance on gigantic freighters — a high-risk occupation, as we see in a scary early sequence. Ida, by contrast, leads a quiet family life. But she's harboring worries about the survival of her marriage when she meets up with her mom and Tuva for a chilly Christmastime dive in northern Norway.

What could go wrong? So much. First, a cold keeps Mom at home. Second — and much worse — a rockslide traps Tuva 108 feet beneath the icy waves with her oxygen rapidly depleting. Tuva's survival now depends on Ida's ability to collect fresh air tanks and call for help. But the women's phones and supplies have been — wait for it — crushed by that same rockslide. For Ida, it's improv time.

Will you like it?

Just recounting the plot of Breaking Surface stresses me out, but stressing out the audience is the point of this kind of movie. Writer-director Joachim Hedén has created a pared-down, efficient thriller that evokes all the frustration of those days when not one damn thing goes right for us — only with life-or-death stakes.

Fans of survival horror will inevitably compare Breaking Surface to that 2017 summer hit in which two sisters on a diving expedition find themselves trapped 47 Meters Down with hungry sharks. Both movies feature lengthy underwater sequences, oxygen tanks as ticking clocks and sisters working out their issues through heavy diving gear.

For guilty-pleasure popcorn scares, you probably can't beat the CG shark attacking Mandy Moore in 47 Meters Down, but Breaking Surface generates tension more elegantly. For one thing, the sibling dynamic it establishes in its early scenes feels plausible and not perfunctory. Favored by their mother, Tuva is the brash, capable sister who wouldn't dream of not stopping to help a stranger change a flat. If either sister has "MacGyver" potential, it's not Ida — which is why, when Ida becomes the savior by default, her desperation is as believable as it is agonizing to watch. Movie action heroes may be effortlessly competent in emergencies, but Ida's flailing feels a lot more real.

The movie's secret weapon is its majestic Nordic setting, captured by Anna Patarakina's cinematography. While the surface resembles a black-and-white etching, the subterranean world is an oil painting in rich greens and blacks, rendered with much-needed clarity by underwater cinematographer Eric Börjeson.

Breaking Surface doesn't introduce any new twists to the survival formula; its main strength is Hedén's doggedly literal focus on the limited tool set Ida has at her disposal. (Objects such as a tire jack, a trunk lock and a broken valve assume vital importance.) The mundaneness of the sisters' plight — no monsters, no sharks, just big rocks and gravity — gives the movie a neat minimalism.

Hedén does permit himself one very Scandinavian joke: Throughout the film, as Ida panics, her mom's good-natured golden retriever, Knut, prances around on shore sublimely oblivious to his humans' peril. The dog's indifference highlights the boundary between surface and subterranean worlds that makes films about underwater peril so eerie and compelling. By the end, we might be convinced Knut has the right idea — it's best to stay dry.

If you like this, try...

The Wave (2015; YouTube, Tubi, Vudu, Hulu, Sling, Crackle): Rockslides don't just threaten divers in Norway; they also cause town-swallowing tidal waves! At least, that's the premise of this disaster movie from director Roar Uthaug, which is smaller scale and more thoughtful than its American counterparts.

"Trapped" (2015-19; Amazon Prime Video, rentable): If you could stare forever at bleakly beautiful Scandi-scapes, check out this Icelandic mystery series in which a blizzard traps ferry passengers in a small town ... where a freshly dismembered corpse has just been found.

"The Terror," season 1 (2018; Hulu, rentable): As a fan of cold-weather survival dramas in general, I loved this AMC adaptation of Dan Simmons' (also excellent) horror novel about the doomed 1845 Franklin Expedition. More harrowing than horrifying, it makes the most of a wonderful cast led by Jared Harris.

The original print version of this article was headlined "Breaking Surface"