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A Romantic Epic from Director Baltasar Kormákur

A Romantic Epic from Director Baltasar Kormákur

Icelandic director Baltasar Kormákur swerves away from the action thrillers and survival sagas that have been his domain of late to get back closer to the romantic roots of his 2000 breakout, 101 Rekyavik, with the cross-cultural, decades-spanning grown-up melodrama of Touch. A panoramic love story interrupted by time, mystery and the fallout of war, the elegantly crafted film knows when to curb its sentimentality and when to let it resonate. It deftly balances two strands separated by half a century, acted with great sensitivity by the four leads.

Comparisons with Past Lives will be inevitable given the emotional exploration in Kormákur’s film of what might have been between two people whose lives diverge at the height of their passion. Touch doesn’t have the profundity of Celine Song’s stunning debut but it’s a very satisfying watch with a pleasing novelistic amplitude that reflects its source material, the 2020 book of the same name by screenwriter Ólafur Jóhann Ólafsson. Focus will release the movie — which unfolds in Icelandic, Japanese and English — July 12 in the U.S.


The Bottom Line


Release date: Friday, July 12
Cast: Egill Ólafsson, Pálmi Kormákur, Kōki, Masahiro Motoki, Yôko Narahashi, Meg Kubota, Masatoshi Nakamura, Ruth Sheen
Director: Baltasar Kormákur 
Screenwriter:  Ólafur Jóhann Ólafsson

Rated R,
2 hours 1 minute

The spark of the story is the diagnosis in 2020 of Icelandic widower Kristofer (Egill Ólafsson) with early-stage dementia and the advice of his doctor that now is the time to tend to unfinished business. He closes his Rekyavik restaurant, mutters a quiet “Forgive me” to a framed photograph of his late wife, and flies to London, just as COVID-19 pandemic restrictions are ramping up.

In the British capital, Kristofer revisits places familiar from his time there as a young man (played by the director’s son, Pálmi Kormákur) at the tail end of the ‘60s. He was enrolled at London School of Economics during a period of student unrest; his radical ideas prompted him to reject an establishment education and take a job washing dishes at Nippon, a Japanese restaurant frequented almost exclusively by Japanese customers due to lingering postwar antipathy.

Encouraged by stern but fatherly Nippon proprietor Takahashi-san (Masahiro Motoki), Kristofer begins helping with kitchen prep and then proves a quick study, boning up on Japanese cooking techniques while also teaching himself the basics of the language. A large part of the incentive is his instant attraction to Takahashi-san’s daughter Miko (Kōki), a waitress at the restaurant.

Miko is a self-possessed young woman under the watchful eye of a conservative father, but she’s also stepping out in Mary Quant minidresses, soaking up the freedoms of Swinging London. At first, she regards the lanky Icelander with amused detachment, but gradually his gentle manner coaxes her to reciprocate his tender feelings. They begin a clandestine relationship, both of them falling hard, and Kristofer learns that the family emigrated to England from Hiroshima. But without warning, he arrives for work one day to find Nippon closed and Takahashi and Miko both gone.

Cutting among the elderly Kristofer’s efforts in London to track down Nippon staffer Hitomi (Meg Kubota), memories of his wife (María Ellingsen) or his more recent doctor’s visit back in Rekyavik, and the younger Kristofer’s experiences, the movie’s shuffled timeline initially takes some adjustment. But it gradually finds a more fluid, undulating rhythm once Kristofer starts piecing together details from the past, pointing him to Japan.

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The drama acquires urgency via the older Kristofer’s fears for his declining health, the concerned calls from his daughter, and the pandemic closing of hotels and international borders. Yet Kormákur also allows Kristofer’s journey the space to breathe, notably in an extended interlude where he strikes up a friendship in a Tokyo sake bar with another lonely widower (Masatoshi Nakamura).

Late developments unravel the mystery of Miko’s abrupt disappearance and fill in the blanks of the intervening years, a process both comforting and melancholy for Kristofer as he comes to understand the ripple effects of war and the bombing of Hiroshima. Additional poignancy comes from the title, Touch, referring not just to two people’s impact on each other’s lives but to the pandemic guidelines about limiting physical contact, adding one more barrier to overcome.

The movie occasionally veers toward cliché, but its delicacy and restraint keep it dramatically compelling and its emotions are never unearned, right through to its lovely open-ended conclusion.

The principal actors favor understatement, which is complemented by the gentle strains of Högni Egilsson’s score. Ólafsson’s Kristofer is the movie’s soulful center, his stoic demeanor hiding a deep well of yearning, while the younger Kormákur and Japanese model-turned-actor Kōki make moving impressions as the twentysomething lovers.

Motoki (best known for 2009 international Oscar winner Departures) is terrific at revealing the humanity and warmth under Takahashi-san’s very serious exterior, and it’s always a pleasure to see wonderful Mike Leigh regular Ruth Sheen, who turns up here as young Kristofer’s nosy London landlady.

Period detail from production designer Sunneva Ása Weisshappel and costumer Margrét Einarsdóttir is subtle but effective, echoed in a sprinkling of vintage tracks from Nick Drake, John Lennon, The Zombies and others. The drama’s scope is enhanced by Bergsteinn Björgúlfsson’s graceful cinematography across three countries. Touch is a minor-key movie but a consistently absorbing one. It’s rewarding to see accomplished director Kormákur working in a different vein.

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