Written by: Christopher Llewellyn Reed | September 12th, 2023
Shame on Dry Land (Axel Petersén, 2023) 3 out of 4 stars.
There are enough double-crosses in Swedish director Axel Petersén’s Shame on Dry Land to justify him calling it, as he does in the press notes, a “Mediterranean noir.” Set on the island nation of Malta, the movie is a crime thriller with, at its center, a story of friendship lost and restored. Gripping stuff with many an unusual plot twist and some fine performances, it’s a wild ride from despair to redemption.
Joel Spira (Orca) stars as Dimman, who when we first meet him is practicing an apology speech. To whom? We don’t know yet. Once he arrives on Malta, it’s clear he’s there illicitly, slipping bribes to portside officials as he walks by them. In a taxi on the way to his destination, the driver walks him through the long Maltese history of colonization, culminating in today’s thousands of Swedes in the eGaming business, just the latest wave of new arrivals.
That night, Dimman lurks outside a lavish home in the hills, until Fredrik (Christopher Wagelin, Quick), who turns out to be his former business partner (and former best friend), comes out. To say that Fredrik is shocked to see Dimman is an understatement. Were his extroverted fiancée, Sara (Julia Sporre, The Square), not also there, the two men might merely stare at each other with sullen, awkward glances. Or at least Fredrik would; Dimman is all for conversation and making up.
For what? We will soon learn, but there is a clear rift stemming from something Dimman did in the past. His timing for a visit hardly comes at the best time, however, since Fredrik and Sara’s wedding is just days away. The last thing they need—the groom, especially, who appears to be in serious financial trouble—is an added wrinkle.
Meanwhile, Dimman has a pending new gig, courtesy of Kicki (Jacqueline Ramel, Storm), a maternal figure with a shady side (and a penchant for much younger men). She plans to send Dimman off on a series of chartered sailing cruises with “assorted Eurotrash.” Before that, however, she wants him to keep tabs on a financial inspector investigating local businesses (or is he shaking them down?). Plot details layer the one upon the other as Dimman has only one real goal of any importance to him: to apologize to Fredrik.
The sceneries are striking and the performances strong. Petersén (The Real Estate) has a delightful knack for inserting humor into even the most fraught scenes, preventing the movie from being one long journey into unbearable tension. Among his comic touches is the casting of Swedish heavy-metal rock star Tommy Nilsson as Pierre, Sara’s father. He’s a good actor, but even better is his final crooning of Cher’s 1998 “Believe” during the wedding. There is no shame in this movie, even if not every narrative turn lands to equal effect, just a lot of joy in the watching.
[Shame on Dry Land just had its world premiere at the 2023 Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF), as part of the Platform Programme.]