Review: HBO's 'Oslo' is a stirring take on the events that led to the Oslo Accords

The film comes on the heels of one of the most violent flare-ups of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in recent years

It is difficult to watch Oslo without feeling doleful throughout. The film, which will premiere on HBO Max in the US on Saturday, recounts the back-channel negotiations between the Palestine Liberation Organisation and Israel that led to the signing of the Oslo I Accord in September 1993.

It was adapted from the Tony Award-winning play by J T Rogers, who also wrote the screenplay for the film, and was directed by The King and I Tony Award winner Bartlett Sher, who directed the Broadway production of Oslo.

Oslo is being released on the heels of one of the most violent flare-ups of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in recent years.

The events in East Jerusalem's Sheikh Jarrah neighbourhood and the Israeli bombardment of Gaza, which left more than 200 dead and almost 2,000 injured, have been a grim reminder that the plight of the Palestinians has only exacerbated in the years since the Oslo Accords were signed.

'Luther' star Ruth Wilson gives an arresting performance as Mona Juul, one of the Norwegian diplomats who instigated the Oslo peace talks. HBO
'Luther' star Ruth Wilson as Mona Juul, one of the Norwegian diplomats who instigated the Oslo peace talks. HBO

As the film traces the tremulous advancements of the Oslo negotiations, you’ll find it near impossible to celebrate its minute victories. Every successful meeting, handshake or establishment of common ground is thwarted with the sad realisation that the accords did not bring about the peace the political characters were hoping for.

You don’t need to dive into history books to know why the Oslo Accords were a failure. The persistent and illegal expansion of Israeli settlements into the West Bank and other Palestinian territories are ample proof.

Even now, after a shaky ceasefire has been implemented, Gazans are struggling to find a semblance of a normal life in the landscape of ruin left in the wake of the Israeli airstrikes. Many are also unable to find proper medical care in Gaza, which has been under an active blockade since 2007 after Hamas took control.

The Oslo Accords were a divisive topic from the beginning. Several Arab and Palestinian intellectuals recognised the agreement’s imbalance immediately. Edward Said, a Palestinian-American academic, in his October 1993 article The Morning After, wrote: “Let us call the agreement by its real name: an instrument of Palestinian surrender, a Palestinian Versailles.

“What emerges from such scrutiny is a deal that is more flawed and, for most of the Palestinian people, more unfavourably weighted than many had first supposed.”

The accords also had its detractors in Israel. Many Israelis saw the agreement as a threat to the country’s security and it was an extremist who opposed the accords’ terms that assassinated Yitzhak Rabin, prime minister of Israel, in 1995. Five years later, negotiations at the Camp David summit failed and the second Intifada broke out.

The film's Arab cast Waleed Zuaiter and Salim Dau offer a layered and enduring performance as Hassan Asfour and Ahmed Qurie. HBO
The film's Arab cast Waleed Zuaiter and Salim Dau offer a layered and enduring performance as Hassan Asfour and Ahmed Qurie. HBO

Oslo briefly touches upon some of these events in its final few minutes. As such, it offers no illusions that the accords were a success. Fortunately, the film is not about the accords. If it were, it would have been an elegy.

Rather, it is about the risks those involved took to try and open a channel of communication between the conflicting countries. It does not champion the accords but rather the good will of its instigators to try and reach an amicable end to the conflict. In that, it excels – albeit with some questionable directorial choices.

Fortunately, the film is not about the accords. If it were, it would have been an elegy

Oslo’s strongest aspect is its cast. Luther star Ruth Wilson and Sherlock actor Andrew Scott give arresting performances as Mona Juul and Terje Rod-Larsen, the Norwegian diplomats who initiated the talks between the PLO and Israel. Gaza Mon Amour actor Salim Dau offers a layered and enduring portrayal of Ahmed Qurie, finance minister of the PLO. Doval'e Glickman takes over the role of one of the accords' main architects, Professor Yair Hirschfeld, with charm. Unorthodox star Jeff Wilbusch, too, is incredible in his role as Israeli negotiator Uri Sarvir and Rambo III actor Sasson Gabay’s depiction of Shimon Perez is unforgettable.

But it is Waleed Zuaiter who looms from this stellar throng, mostly due to the delicate and thoughtful way in which he portrays Hassan Asfour, official liaison of the PLO.

In the original play, the character of Asfour often risked coming across as a caricature of the Palestinian rage and sorrow, with one-liners that were often delivered with comic effect. Zuaiter expertly lifts the role from that pitfall, depicting a multi-faceted Asfour in a performance that sets a new standard for the character.

'Sherlock' star Andrew Scott is remarkable in his role as Terje Rod-Larsen, one of the Norwegian diplomats who instigated the Oslo peace talks. HBO
'Sherlock' star Andrew Scott stars as Terje Rod-Larsen, one of the Norwegian diplomats who instigated the Oslo peace talks. HBO

Oslo’s cinematography, too, is excellent. With tableaux-like framings, each scene is a delight. Archival footage of the first intifada has also been spliced into the film, underscoring the daily tragedies brought about by the conflict then and now.

However, one eyebrow-raising decision was using a jaundiced yellow filter in scenes taking place in Jerusalem. The filter is infamously used in Hollywood when showing scenes taking place in warm climates, particularly Mexico and the Middle East. The visual tint is not only off-putting and drains a scene of colour but also gives a muddied impression of the country it depicts.

'Unorthodox' star Jeff Wilbusch is incredible in his role as Israeli negotiator Uri Sarvir. HBO
'Unorthodox' star Jeff Wilbusch stars as Israeli negotiator Uri Sarvir. HBO

A memorable feature of the film is its score, written by Fargo composer Jeff Russo and Warrior composer Zoe Keating. With a restrained string section and capering piano melodies, the music is stirring and will stay with you long after the credits have rolled.

All in all, the film is an important watch. It might be a romanticised take on the events that led up to the signing of the accords but the way in which it builds and peels suspense, all while paying tribute to those who took the risks to open a door to peace, makes it one of the year’s most impressive offerings.

At the time of publishing, 'Oslo' has no confirmed release date in the UAE

Updated: May 26, 2021 02:06 PM

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