Norway has more than 1,100 road tunnels, with only a few of them designed with emergency rooms or escape routes. Some would call this a recipe for disaster or a ticking time bomb but it’s the reality for Norwegians. Since 2011, eight big fires – including one in 2015 involving a tanker truck with 16,500 litres of gasoline – have been giving rise to concerns of an impending tragedy with mass casualties if the chips fell wrongly.

The Tunnel’s director Pal Oie is certainly worried. He even inserts a comment at the start of the film that the minimal casualties in the past accidents have been saved only through the grace of timely coincidences, and that the only current solution for victims is self-rescue, which places the entire burden on the citizen. I can then only imagine how this dramatisation would be especially chilling to the Norwegian folks who have to use these dark, claustrophobic passages everyday.

Following the international success of Nordisk Film Production’s previous thrillers like The Wave (2015) and The Quake (2018), The Tunnel is another disaster-themed film that delivers the same formula of adrenaline-fuelled scenes, horrific casualties and personal sacrifice, but anchored to a very authentic issue.

Taking place just before Christmas, the story follows retired rescue worker Stein (Thorbjorn Harr) as he returns home to his estranged daughter Elise (Ylva Fuglerud) to propose a Christmas meal with his new interest Ingrid (Lisa Carlehed). Her grief recovery not quite ready to accept a stepmother, she leaves after an argument and hops onto an express bus to Oslo where her grandmother lives.

That same bus heads into the 9km-long Storfjell Tunnel, where unbeknownst, a gasoline tanker had scraped itself on the tunnel walls and stalled midway. When this same truck explodes, the ensuing explosion causes a deadly cloud of fumes and smoke to engulf the entire tunnel. The magnitude of the accident calls upon Stein to return, but he later becomes personally invested when he learns that his daughter is also in the tunnel.

The Tunnel, or Tunnelen, benefits greatly from the success of previous films. The production feels experienced and the proficient handling gives naturalistic ease to the film, most evident in the script that rolls out the story very smoothly. Within the first 20 minutes, we are introduced to a whole cast of members, from the hardworking and compassionate rescue call centre operator (Ingvild Holthe Bygdnes) to the hapless town mayor. 

Clever lines help position their roles and establish the types of relationships, and this continues on until the explosion occurs. After that, the script gets a little standard – a shame given how wonderful the first half was, but the writing remains nonetheless very decent. I especially enjoyed the unexpected “blessing in disguise”sequence for a dad and son. Though their characters and antics are trite, their arc adds a nice layer largely not talked about in disaster films.

Performances in general are good and gritty. Harr could do with more range, especially when next to his daughter Elise – Fuglerudare displays a great mix of strength and vulnerability in her role. Between the efforts and decisions of the two within the tunnel, Fuglerudare’s thread comes across more thoughtful and realistic.  

The Tunnel is also supported by some great cinematography. Beautifully shot and rich with bold depth of field and bold framing, the experience becomes a lot more intimate – perfect for Stein and Elise’s journey when dealing with the loss of a loved one. 

If there’s anything at all that this film could improve on, it would be to carry through the finesse of the first half of the film across to the second. One can feel how trim and finely-crafted the first 45 minutes was, but once Stein finds out about his daughter’s predicament, it starts to become a little haphazard. Accidents seem a little random and there are also sequences which feel disjointed, given that we don’t have a good bearing inside the tunnel, and there are also sudden leaps in time that seemed like a mistake in storyboarding.

But this Norwegian production is still very polished, and a nice switch from the Hollywood scenarios we’ve grown used to. Hopefully it also ends up activating the relevant authorities to look into the matter, so that this will never happen in real life.

Gritty disaster thriller that blends action scenes of rescue amidst the carnage with a heart of a family’s journey in grief and love. Great production overall. 


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