Perhaps it’s time for another meeting between officials from Israel and Palestine like the series of off-the-books negotiations that took place in Oslo, Norway, back in 1993. Those sessions — conducted in secret over nearly six months, since Israeli policy forbade interacting with or otherwise acknowledging the authority of the Palestinian Liberation Organization — paid off in a very public handshake between Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and PLO leader Yasser Arafat, photographed with then-U.S. President Bill Clinton.
But the U.S. had little to do with the Oslo Accords, as J.T. Rogers’ Tony-winning play “Oslo” reminded audiences when it premiered at New York’s Lincoln Center Theater in 2016. The discussions were brokered by a nonpartisan Norwegian couple, which provides a uniquely neutral framing device for an in-depth look at the issues concerning both sides. Now, as a recent outbreak of violence in the region reminds how precarious any peace agreement has been, it’s no wonder that HBO has scheduled its made-for-TV adaptation to air sooner than later, when its historical perspective might prove most relevant.
Where Rogers’ three-hour stage play was dense with overlapping dialogue and deep-end policy talk, the movie version (which counts Marc Platt and Steven Spielberg among its producers) pares that back to just under two hours. If anything, the feature errs on the side of trying not to look theatrical, a criticism that has been so hammered into films based on plays that too many overcorrect in the opposite direction. Here, director Bartlett Sher tries various tricks — including the use of camera filters, outdoor walk-and-talk scenes and a PTSD-style flashback that recurs throughout — to make things feel more cinematic.
A project about the 1993 Oslo peace talks ought to feature a fair amount of talk, whereas Sher shies away from the essence of Rogers’ script (which the playwright adapted himself). Then again, few people know the material better: Sher also oversaw the stage production in which Jennifer Ehle and Jefferson Mays played the peacemaking Scandi couple, so his approach here represents a different strategy, likely intended to broaden “Oslo’s” appeal. But slowing down, reducing and breaking up Rogers’ dialogue has the unintended effect of making things feel longer and less dynamic. (The same would almost certainly be true if done to an Armando Iannucci script. Sometimes you just have to commit and let discourse run its course.)
Still, in casting Ruth Wilson and Andrew Scott as junior minister Mona Juul and husband/co-facilitator Terje Rød-Larsen, he’s brought a fresh energy to the movie. Everybody in this ensemble wants peace, but that’s the sole motive of Mona and Terje, which makes them far easier to identify with, at least compared with the ever-expanding cast of Israeli and Palestinian characters with their more complicated agendas. According to Israeli legal adviser Joel Singer (Igal Naor), what the Jewish State seeks is “for you to acknowledge the legitimacy of our existence,” while PLO finance minister Ahmed Qurei (Salim Daw) insists that the other side accept the PLO as the official voice of the Palestinian people.
That’s no small ask, as “Oslo” makes clear, since Israel regarded the PLO as a terrorist organization at the time (much as the Israeli government does Hamas today), effectively refusing to deal with its representatives. And yet, no peace can be achieved without engaging these Palestinian organizations, which is where the Norwegian solution served to circumvent this impasse. Rogers lightens the tense tête-à-tête with humor, and yet, by taking place in actual rooms, the movie naturally assumes a more realistic tone. As a result, a good deal of the jokes don’t quite land, and the film can feel stuffy at times.
The natural metaphor for a story like this — in which grown men sneak around in subterfuge, tentatively finding intimacy with would-be enemies — is that of an extramarital affair, but “Oslo” doesn’t really develop chemistry between the two sides. They’re just civil enough to get through the negotiations, frequently pulling back to tear up the latest draft or slap one another in offense or anger. Meanwhile, the script seems more concerned with the state of Mona and Terje’s relationship: In one scene, he swears a bold lie on his wife’s soul, while in another, she threatens to divorce him if he doesn’t give the diplomats their space.
Rogers’ stage play is a smart, mature piece of writing, but one that transfers rather clumsily to the small screen, in part because its makers don’t show quite the same confidence in their audience’s intelligence. Sher has an incredible asset in Spielberg DP Janusz Kaminski, and yet, they’re stuck very much in “Munich” mode here. Audiences have already seen so many of these choices — the most clichéd being that flashback scene, in which Mona crouches behind an upturned car and witnesses the confrontation between “two boys,” a young Israeli soldier and an equally scared Palestinian activist. Watching the film, we all want to get to that famous handshake between Rabin and Arafat — and whatever the contemporary equivalent of such an agreement would be.