One of the things I always appreciate about independent film is how each film is an individual, with its own distinct and intriguing personality. When you can't predict how a story will develop or what the ending will be, the experience of watching the film becomes that much richer and more engaging. Aberdeen falls squarely into the category of well-made independent films: it draws you in and subtly engages you in the lives of its characters, taking you along for a ride full of emotional ups and downs to finish up in a complex and thoughtful ending.
As the film opens, we begin with the life of Kaisa (Lena Headey), an up-and-coming businesswoman who lives the "high life" with all its trappings of fancy clothes, casual sex, and pressure from work. When her mother (Charlotte Rampling) calls on her filial obligations to bring her estranged father Tomas (Stellan Skarsgård) to Aberdeen, Kaisa is resentful, but she gives in out of a sense of duty. But as it turns out, getting Tomas from his home in Norway to her mother in Aberdeen is a far more difficult task than expected... both practically and emotionally.
Aberdeen is uncompromising in its realism. The idea of a "road trip" has a certain glamour to it, but Aberdeen shows its grungy reality. That's not to say that it's a dark or gloomy film; it's not. But it's a film that "gets its hands dirty": we see the characters dirty, tired, sick of each other, pushed to their breaking points and beyond not just by the various calamities that befall them, but by the day-to-day and hour-to-hour effort of holding it all together.
Stellan Skarsgård always turns in a solid performance in any movie he's in, and Aberdeen is no exception. Here, his performance as the devastated alcoholic Tomas is chilling. He doesn't just play "the drunk": he captures the desperate need that leads him to humiliate himself for the sake of a gulp of alcohol, the bitterness of a life that's unraveling, and the dreadful clarity of the moments of sobriety when he is perfectly aware of what the addiction has made of himself. Skarsgård's performance is nicely complemented by Headey's; she brings out the depths of the character of Kaisa, who is superficially confident and in control, but at her core also haunted by the specters of addiction, insecurity, and loss.
This joint Norwegian-British production, directed by Norwegian Hans Petter Moland, is in English; the Norwegian element is very subdued, present mainly in the fact that the character of Tomas is Norwegian. Accents are used at various points in the film to underscore character impressions, as with the party of travelers whose very English accents (along with their snooty attitude) are a source of hilarity for Kaisa. Similarly, Kaisa's own strong Scottish accent sets her apart from Tomas and even her mother, underscoring the way that she has rejected them and their culture.
Several unexpected elements come together in the conclusion of the film. I won't spoil the story by giving anything away, but it's enough to say that this isn't your typical happily-ever-after everything-is-made-right ending. It's deeper, richer, more realistic, and ultimately more satisfying than any predictable ending could have been.
For a film that's as well-crafted as Aberdeen, I wish I could report better results on the video quality of the DVD transfer. Unfortunately, it's far from what I would wish for.
The image is presented in its original aspect ratio of 1.85:1, though it's not anamorphically enhanced. It's very heavily edge-enhanced, which detracts significantly from the clarity of the image, which overall is rather blurry and moderately noisy. Contrast is generally adequate, though weaker in dark scenes; colors are drab and not quite realistic-looking. Overall, it's watchable, but certainly below average.
Aberdeen's Dolby 2.0 track is satisfactory for the film, which is predominately dialogue-based. During a few scenes, particularly the opening, I found the music track to be a little too strong, but on the whole it's well balanced with the dialogue track. Speech is clear and easily understandable. (And the actors' accents are wonderful.)
For a release from a small company, Aberdeen has a reasonable slate of special features. Trailers are included for Aberdeen and for three other First Run Features DVDs. We also get a short video interview with director, in which he discusses his identity as a Norwegian filmmaker, and fairly detailed text cast biographies.
Aberdeen is challenging, well-crafted, and well-acted; the only thing it's lacking is a DVD transfer that's equally polished. Even so, it's a DVD that I'd recommend seeing.