COLLIDER: ‘Unruly’ Review: Malou Reymann’s Powerful Story of Institutionalized Woman Is Affecting and Timely | TIFF 2022

By Ross Bonaime




An excellent ensemble leads this story of women losing power over their own bodies.

Whether intentionally or not, 2022 has been full of heartbreaking reminders that in terms of equality and a woman’s agency over her own body, we have a disappointingly long way to go. Already this year, we’ve seen the staggering isolation within Audrey Diwan’s Happening, and soon, Sarah Polley’s tremendous Women Talking. But deserving to be in the conversation with these films is Unruly, by director Malou Reymann, about a group of women in 1930s Denmark placed in an institution for their “questionable” behavior.

The latest addition to this institution is Maren (Emilie Kroyer Koppel) a teenager who likes going out dancing, drinks, and hooking up at parties. Her family doesn’t know what to do with their seemingly rebellious daughter, and the child welfare services take over, sending her to an asylum on Sprogø, where she is expected to learn the necessary virtues to return to society.

Many of the women at the Sprogø Women’s Institution have been there for years, growing pacified by the questionable treatment. Once such patient, Sørine (Jessica Dinnage), is worried about Maren’s ability to shake up things from how they’re usually done. While the other women have become compliant with Miss Nielsen (Lene Maria Christensen), who runs the asylum, Maren only becomes more determined to break free of these restraints—a viewpoint that alters the minds of some of these patients.

Those who run the institution believe these women are ruled by their impulses, unable to control themselves in society. Because of this, Doctor Wildenskov (Anders Heinrichsen) is for a potential new law that will sterilize these women who are unfit to be a part of normal society. While many of the patients are unaware of this possible law, for the audience, this element adds a ticking clock for these women, a reminder that not only is their present being challenged, but the potential of them being able to become mothers in the future. Through this law hanging over their heads, we see how easy it is for these women to lose the right to their own bodies thanks to the government’s intervention. Whenever it seems like they’ve taken so much, there’s always more at stake that can be taken away.

Adding to this tension is Lisa Montan’s unsettling score, which gives a sense of unease whenever it's utilized in a scene. We know that what is going on here isn’t right, and the score only highlights our worst fears about this scenario. Reymann’s direction and the screenplay by Reymann and Sara Isabella Jønsson also make the audience feel Maren’s claustrophobia on this island, a nightmare that she can’t escape no matter how hard she tries. In many ways, Unruly plays like an inescapable horror story, a world where the worst isn’t a possibility, it’s inevitable—and all because they simply aren’t like everyone else in society.

This desperation comes through in the performance by Koppel, who at first fights against the administration head-on, then decides to take a more tactical approach to her escape. Even in this situation, she attempts to find her own individuality and voice. When Sørine says that all patients must make their own dresses, and that there are plenty of patterns to work from, Maren decides to make her own from scratch, an attempt to have some semblance of an identity even while imprisoned. Koppel’s performance works when it’s loud and angry, but is just as disconcerting when she’s quietly trying to figure out her next move, or any way she can get a leg up in her situation.

On the other end of this is Dinnage’s Sørine, who starts off as meek and obedient as possible, then starts to see her cage for what it is once Maren is introduced into the mix. Dinnage always plays Sørine in a reserved manner, so when she even shows the slightest resistance to authority, it feels like a major win for both Sørine and the entire institution. As we learn more about Sørine’s life before the institution and everything that Sprogø has taken from her, we start to see how her acquiescence to the higher-ups is just another trap that is even harder to escape.

But as Unruly expands its view to those working at the institution, we start to see the impact that such degrading treatment has on those in power. Christensen’s Miss Nielsen is an extremely difficult character to have sympathy for, and yet as Reymann and Jønsson’s script starts to delve into her life, we see the toll that it has on those higher up on the ladder. Even though Miss Nielsen is a tool in helping trap and potentially sterilizing these women, she is aware of her part in this process and how much that pain bears on her soul—she’s just doing her job, but that excuse can only take you so far.

Like both Happening and Women Talking, Unruly feels like an essential part of the conversation occurring this year about the lack of power women have over their own body. Even though Unruly is set almost a century in the past, it still unfortunately feels prescient, considering the horrific choices made in the last few months. Unruly showcases the terror and how powerless such decisions can make the recipients feel, as if they’re only living a half-life without essential freedoms. Unruly often shows the rebels are the ones on the right side of history.


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