Film: Mystery of the Wolf ***
Release Date: 9th August 2010
Running time: 86 mins
Director: Raimo O. Niemi
Starring: Tiia Talvisara, Janne Saksela, Vuokko Hovatta, Miia Nuutila, Kari-Pekka Toivonen
Wolves have long evoked both fear and admiration as symbols of beauty and danger. Their image has changed drastically through the centuries – from creator and helper to symbol of evil, from predator to prey, from legend to icon. Director Raimo O. Niemi (The Blow-flower Boy and the Sky Mechanic) has mainly dabbled in television, but Mystery of the Wolf, finally released in the UK after a four-year absence, offers a glimpse at this remarkable animal, along with its complex and ever-changing relationship with humans.
After the death of her husband, Laila (Vuokko Hovatta) is driven mad by grief and abandons her young daughter Salla (Tiia Talvisara). Adopted by police officer Antii and his wife Kirsti, Salla lives a fairly average life in the Finnish wilderness until, at the age of twelve, she discovers that her mother has returned to reclaim her.
When Salla rescues some wolf cubs from poachers, her mission to keep them safe helps her bond with her real mother and befriend a boy who both share her mysterious connection with nature. However, a heavily pregnant Kirsti is reluctant to let her adopted daughter return to her roots, and the poachers are determined to hunt down the revered cubs before they too are reunited with their own mother…
Best known for his work in television, director Raimo O. Niemi displays a sure hand for both setting and character, using the beautiful Finnish landscapes during both winter and summer to striking effect. Tiia Talvisara and Janne Saksela (Salla and school friend Matias) make a surprisingly charismatic screen couple, while Peter Franzen, playing vile poacher Antero, easily outshines his adult co-stars with a sinister performance.
The wolves are actually given little screen time (though when they do appear they certainly steal the show) but Mystery of the Wolf still manages to hold interest thanks to its charming leads and a story that breezes along nicely, even if nothing truly sensational happens until the midway point. The scene in which one of the wolves struggles to escape its tormentors is tense, surprising, and not one for the animal lover.
In a way, it’s that scene that really gets the film moving. Salla’s deteriorating relationship with both wannabe guardians almost runs out of ideas by the half way stage, so a brooding villain and a goofy romance keep the pace from flagging. Why Antero and his flunkeys initially decide to hunt the wolves, the perfect cover up for their reindeer-poaching escapades, isn’t properly answered (a scene during the second act suggests that one of the poachers shares the same sentiments), while the trigger for Antero to go after the mother wolf is clumsily dealt with and doesn’t give Simo, his delightful hound, the proper send-off his amusing side-show warrants.
Staying on that subject, it’s questionable whether the mother wolf would actually attack the dog unless feeling truly threatened (documented cases of wolves attacking humans or those animals that aren’t the most vulnerable are quite rare), so it’s a failing of the movie that the viewer never witnesses anything to suggest this is so. It’s also dubious that a twelve-year-old girl can be so in tune with nature. Yet the mere sight of wolf cubs being ferried about in rucksacks, or the pregnant wolf standing over the lifeless body of her other pack member is so touching, such contentious plot devices are easily dismissed.
When the wolves aren’t present, especially in the opening act, the drama feels a little stretched. Its refreshing then when Salla meets Matias, because the story shifts focus from the family strains to the gentle romance their friendship instigates. Add Antero to the mix and the script is transformed into something far better than the viewer could have hoped for. In fact, it’s disappointing every time Salla returns home from her daily adventures, whether it be flirting with Matias, interacting with the wolves or evading her nemesis Antero.
Inevitably, despite the superior subplots, a heart to heart between mother and daughter encourages a final act which frustrates almost as much as it delights. Clambering down a fell to the river with two cubs strapped to our protagonists backs is sadly less exciting then it actually could be, but the standoff between Salla and Antero is mainly tense thanks to Raimo O. Niemi’s ability to keep the viewer on tenterhooks right until the final shot is blasted. The accidental shooting feels like a copout, and the odd manner in which Antero spills his guts (not literally) when he really doesn’t need to provides little satisfaction unless you’re under the age of ten.
Fortunately, a daring ride across the river onboard a snowmobile offers brief excitement, followed by a brilliant, not to mention laugh-out-loud exchange of dialogue between the two children when all is said and done. The inevitable reunion between mother and daughter is handled well, intersected with the more rewarding reunion of those furry scene stealers - the reason why this family drama manages to sustain such a substantial amount of interest.
Mystery of the Wolf will appeal to children and animal lovers mostly, but the beautiful landscapes and some notable performances by its cast should brighten up any rainy afternoon.