‘Border’ review – bleak Scandi fable finds beauty in the eye of the beholder

Let The Right One In author John Ajvide Lindqvist's latest offering is more than an outsider love story – there's a horror among the beauty that makes it a compelling watch, says Graeme Virtue

If we know anything about human nature, it is that love can blossom in the most unpromising places. A cruddy roll-on, roll-off ferry servicing a remote Swedish port might not seem like a promising hotbed of animal attraction despite the near-constant bump and grind of industrial clanking. But in the ambiguous Border, this cheerless, workaday setting – or at least the rickety customs declaration table passengers try to amble past casually as they disembark – is the launchpad for a cryptic romance, one fit for a Scandi fairytale.

In her ill-fitting Tullverket uniform, Tina (Eva Melander) initially looks like a rather timid customs agent, a 40-year-old dogsbody with lifeless hair, crooked teeth and a regretfully prominent brow. Despite her drab appearance, Tina is extraordinarily good at her job, capable of detecting ne’er-do-wells attempting to smuggle contraband into Sweden. Her uncanny skill at nosing out those carrying excess booze – or worse – does not seem to give her any pleasure, though. The closest Tina comes to anything like happiness is roaming alone in the wild woodland near her remote cabin, wordlessly contemplating bark and bugs.

She has a feckless, apathetic live-in partner who clearly feels much more for his dogs than for her and a widowed father in care who is apparently losing his grip on the past. For Tina, it looks and feels like a life half-lived, until she meets Vore (Eero Milonoff). While she sees some of her own physical characteristics reflected back – a similarly protruding forehead, a snaggletooth mouth – this stranger walks with something approaching swagger. With long curly locks, some vaguely musketeer-ish bristles and a generous dollop of self-confidence, Vore resembles a Cro-Magnon version of Jay Rayner.

It takes a slow-burning, elliptical hour before Border chooses to reveal its true nature

As Vore flirtatiously pursues Tina and encourages her to be true to herself, you might feel like Border is settling into a familiar groove of outsider romance: the dowdy wallflower who has her neglected passions reignited by a carefree rebel who shows her that trying to fit in with societal norms is for squares. Certainly, Tina’s fascination with Vore propels her far beyond her usual routines, and overlaps with an expansion in her professional horizons as she assists a grisly police investigation with her weird powers of detection.

It takes a slow-burning, elliptical hour before Border chooses to reveal its true nature and even if you have been able to intuit some of its wilder curveballs, it is a film that seems determined to explore – or at least mirror – the darker side of humanity as much as celebrate the electroshock joy of discovering a true connection. At first, it seems like Melander and Milonoff are required to give restrained performances because of their facial prosthetics but once the relationship between Tina and Vore deepens, their expressive range expands dramatically, demonstrating the ingeniousness of Border’s Oscar-nominated makeup.

For all its intimate scale and recognisably mundane setting, Border gradually becomes a film of surprising extremes and while Tina remains a compelling presence throughout it may end up being too overwhelming for anyone simply in the market for an offbeat love story. The juxtaposition of creeping horror with the everyday has become a calling card of John Ajvide Lindqvist, author of the ingenious vampire story Let The Right One In and here he adapts his own short story for the screen in collaboration with Iranian-Swedish director Ali Abbasi and writer Isabella Eklöf. The result is an earthy, unpredictable fable interspersed with moments of bleak Nordic beauty and a movie well worth sniffing out.

★★★★☆

Border is in cinemas from March 8