Sundance: ‘Sonja’ cuts to the core of famed ice skater Sonja Henie |

Sundance: ‘Sonja’ cuts to the core of famed ice skater Sonja Henie

Eldar Skar, Ine Marie Wilmann and Gustavo Rojo appear in "Sonja – The White Swan." The film tells the rise and fall of Sonja Henie, a famous ice skater and Hollywood actress in the early to mid 1900s.
Jose Haro/Courtesy of Sundance Institute

As soon as Sonja Henie glided onto the ice, she owned the audience. Her enchanting smile and impressive skating skills drew all eyes to her. She thrived in the spotlight.

But Henie, a Hollywood film star and famous Norwegian ice skater in the early to mid 1900s, eventually lost her shine. Her rise to fame and subsequent fall are chronicled in the narrative film “Sonja — The White Swan,” which is an entry in the Sundance Film Festival’s Premieres category.

Director Anne Sewitsky, who directed former Sundance films “Happy, Happy” and “Homesick,” chose to highlight Henie’s peak years and her downfall rather than create a traditional “hero film” that depicted Henie’s rise to stardom. She said Henie was a complex character, and there were several aspects of her life she could have focused on. Sewitsky opted for the story that would highlight her familial relationships.

‘Sonja — The White Swan’

Tuesday, Jan. 29, 6:30 p.m., Eccles Theatre
Wednesday, Jan. 30, 9 a.m., Eccles Theatre
Friday, Feb. 1, 11:30 a.m., Prospector Square Theatre
Saturday, Feb. 2, 9 p.m., Salt Lake City Library Theatre

“It made us be able to set her family story and the emotional story of her life starting at the top, where she was the wealthiest, and then, with looking at the character, how she ends up losing it all and how she reacts to that,” she said.

The film jumps right into Henie’s extravagant ice shows, and quickly progresses to show her as the star of popular films. She throws large parties and becomes one of the highest paid actresses in Hollywood, but she pushes for more.

Sewitsky said she was drawn to Henie’s story because of her ambition and courage to be completely herself, which did not fit into the traditional image of a woman at the time. At one point in the film, a film producer tells Henie that her fans want to see her married and making “apple strudels on Sundays.”

“I felt like she was, in many ways, a woman way before her time, business-wise and also quite untraditional (because) she loved sex, she loved life and she had these huge parties,” Sewitsky said.

Sewitsky said she wanted to show the truest version of Henie that she could. The film was in the works for 10 years as Sewitsky and other members of the film crew researched Henie’s life and decided what parts to portray.

Sewitsky read biographies that showed Henie in both a positive and negative light, and Sewitsky wanted the film to portray the “humanness” of Henie with all of her multifaceted parts. Ine Marie Wilmann, the actress who plays Henie, portrays her as accomplished and animated, but also as self-obsessed, childish and unaware of the impact her decisions make on others.

It was difficult for Sewitsky to take an icon from history and present her story on the screen. In Norway, where Sewitsky and Henie are both from, Henie is a legend. Statues honor her athletic abilities as an Olympic gold medalist and ice skating world champion.

Sewitsky said she ultimately had to take all the stories she heard about Henie and present her own interpretation of her life. It was a new challenge, because Sewitsky had not told the story of a real person before through film, but it is a project she is proud of.

“I hope in some way we managed to portray a whole person,” Sewitsky said.

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