Thursday, 20 June 2019


NOTE: This review contains some small spoilers

In August of 1973 a Swede called Jan-Erik Olsson, having skipped out on his temporary release from prison, stepped into a bank in Stockholm's Normalmstorg,originally pretending to be American, and, armed with a sub-machine gun, took four people (three women, one man) hostage. He demanded money, a getaway Ford Mustang, and the release of his former cell-mate, Clark Olofsson. The hostage crisis lasted six days, most of which the captors and hostages spent in a bank vault: the authorities had given Olsson what he wanted, but refused to allow him and Olofsson to take the hostages with them when they left. Finally, when the captors surrendered, the hostages protected them as they left the vault together, they refused to testify against them, and seemed to have identified with them, if not been seduced by them. This phenomenon stunned the Swedish authorities. A Swedish psychologist coined it Normalmstorg Syndrome, which the rest of the world now calls Stockholm Syndrome.

I paid particular attention to the story at the time because I had just returned to America from my first visit to Europe, much of which time had been spent meeting my relatives in Sweden. I noted at the time that Olofsson was kept in Kalmar Prison, which is just across the Olandsbron from where many of my family lived and I remember wondering then and wondered now exactly how they got him up to Stockholm so quickly.

Canadian writer/director Robert Budreau went back to a contemporary account in The New Yorker as the basis for his screenplay, and his version, originally called Stockholm when it premiered at Tribeca last year, but was retitled The Captor (neither title is great, to be honest), is a slimmed down version of a story which plays somewhere between farce and thriller, comedy and tragedy. It recalls Dog Day Afternoon, another film based on a real 'robbery' which took place a year before the Normalmstorg one, where the real purpose of the robbery wasn't simply to rob a bank. There's that sense of the robbers being in over their head, that the emotions behind their action overpowers the logic of the situation, and this is what Budreau works on to 'explain' as it were, the nature of Stockholm Syndrome.

In The Captor, it's less a collective feeling born of a long stay in a confined place under horrible conditions, and more of two individual love stories. The obvious one is between Olsson, here called Lars Nystrom (all the names were changed as many of the people involved are still alive) and played by Ethan Hawke and one of the hostages, here called Bianca and played by Noomi Rapace. The story puts Lars in contrast to Bianca's boring husband, and it's not too subtly shown that Lars' plan to shoot her, while she wears a bullet-proof vest, is a sort of climax, as it were, of their growing attraction. But there is also the relationship of Lars and his partner, here called Gunnar and played by Mark Strong. It's a strong enough bond that the police chief accuses Lars of being 'queer' and Bianca later asks him if he 'loves' Gunnar.

This focus renders the other two hostages almost superfluous, which is a shame because Bea Santos as Klara in particular tries to convey feelings about what is going on, without much scope for that. We wind up seeing the bonding between the five (the number of captives has been reduced from the actual four captives) which comes about primarily because they come to believe that the kidnappers care more about their safety than either the police or the politicians, who have bigger points to make with them as the pawns. The key scene is a phone call between Bianca and Swedish Prime Minister Olof Palme, who chilly detachment contrasts sharply with Lars' undirected passion.

What saves this conflict of themes, between a love story and a syndrome story, from sinking the film is the quality of the acting. Once you realise Hawke is playing a Swede playing an American playing a Swede, it all makes sense, and he does a tremendous job of bringing out Lars child-like energy and lack of judgement. Rapace is brilliant, able to convey building emotion and internal conflict with small looks behind the oversized glasses which were the fashion in Sweden in those days. Strong has to be the straight man for Hawke, but he carries off an ambiguous position well (he had been offered his freedom if he 'mediated' a solution--eventually Swedish courts found Olofsson not guilty and he was released from prison). There is also a star turn by Canadian actor Christopher Heyerdahl (cousin of the Norwegian explorer) as police chief Mattsson. He plays a role which is sometimes even farcical and sometimes brutal with a precise control that reminded me constantly of Max Von Sydow, who would have been cast in that role had a Swedish version been made at the time, a la Dog Day Afternoon. His performance is the real anchor against which the chaos of the hostage situation plays.

In the end, of course, the captors were captured and the captives protected them so the police could not hurt them. Olofsson and his family later became friendly with Kristin Enmark (the 'Bianca' hostage who talked with Palme) and he went back to a life of crime. Janne Olsson married one of the many women who corresponded with him while he served his prison sentence, also returned to crime after his release, but when he decided to surrender to Swedish authorities discovered he was not wanted for anything. He and his family eventually settled in Thailand.

The film ends cutting between Bianca with her family on the beach, as if longing for something else, and a scene of her visiting Lars in prison, and with him in one of the rooms reserved for conjugal visits. The room has been referenced earlier in the film, but here their distance and silence suggests the longing is not for Lars at all, and one recalls her asking if Lars loves Gunnar. Hawke's character seems as confused about life as he was about bank robbing and hostage taking.

The Captor (aka Stockholm) is on release today

This review will also appear at Crime Time ( 

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