‘Touch’ Review: Baltasar Kormákur Takes a Walk on the Mild Side

There’s more than one Baltasar Kormákur, it turns out. There’s the Baltasar Kormákur who directs high octane thrillers like the killer lion movie “Beast” and the buddy cop movie “2 Guns,” and there’s a sweet, sensitive, remarkably subtle Baltasar Kormákur who doesn’t get out as much these days, but occasionally reveals himself in the quieter moments of environmental adventures like “Everest” and “Adrift.”

Kormákur’s latest, “Touch,” has nothing explosive to distract us from the drama. It’s an understated and kind-hearted story about an old Icelandic widower named Kristofer (Egill Ólafsson, “Trapped”) who’s searching for the love of his life. Their relationship ended 50 years ago and now he’s a lonely man. He runs a little restaurant. He sings in a local choir. His stepdaughter loves him. But he just found out he probably doesn’t have long to live, so even though the COVID-19 pandemic just broke out — the film takes place in March of 2020 — he won’t let that stop him from traveling the world to see her one last time.

Setting “Touch” at the beginning of the global pandemic adds surprisingly little tension to the story. Kristofer is frequently told he has to check out of his hotel because of lockdowns, or reminded to wear his mask, but these were the early days and not everyone was taking the same preventative measures. There are scenes in “Touch” that take place in crowded restaurants where almost nobody is masking up, and it’s unfortunately distracting. Not every country in the world took the same precautions but at least COVER YOUR NOSE, Kristofer. GEEZ. Millions of people died, for crying out loud.

Anyway, most of “Touch” actually takes place 50 years earlier, where a young Kristofer (Pálmi Kormákur, the director’s son) is a political activist going to school in London. His snotty friends tell him to join the proletariat if he really cares so much about worker’s rights so he impulsively quits school and walks into the first building he sees with a “Help Wanted” sign: a Japanese restaurant run by Takahashi (Masahiro Motoki, “Departures”), who quickly bonds with the young man and gives him a job washing dishes.

Kristofer swiftly falls in love with Takahashi’s daughter, Miko (Kōki, “Ox-Head Village”), who wants to live a liberated life, free of her father’s conservative rules. Baltasar Kormákur is in no rush whatsoever to get those two kooky kids together. Kristofer reveals himself to be mild of temperament when he’s separated from his confrontational school friends, and gradually he learns Japanese, traditional cooking, and the art of haiku, while softly moving closer to Miko, who welcomes his understated affections despite her extroverted personality.

Pálmi Kormákur and Kōki are exceptionally sweet performers, falling into natural rhythms and convincingly portraying moments of romantic intimacy. There’s an undercurrent of anxiety in the form of an untold story between Miko and her father that Kristofer doesn’t know at the time, and may never learn if he can’t find her in 50 years in the future. The way “Touch” resolves this storyline adds a sense of genuine significance to the story, but the film can’t quite help itself and eventually resorts to formulaic melodrama right at the end. It doesn’t ruin “Touch,” but it’s still a touch too much.

Baltasar Kormákur directs “Touch” with tender confidence, knowing exactly how to absorb us in the scene with what looks like the minimum amount of effort — which usually means it took a spectacular amount of effort. Bergsteinn Björgúlfsson (“Wild Game”) photographs the present in dreary, muted tones and gradually warms up as Kristofer gets closer to his one true love. The past has a more tranquil palette; Takahashi’s restaurant is as inviting as any fictional restaurant can be, full of earthy comforts and little details.

“Touch” can be distracting in its portrayal of the early pandemic, and it tries a little too hard to crowd-please in its final minutes, but what’s worth taking away from the film is its peacefulness. There are moments of friendship and family and workplace camaraderie that are real and charming. There’s a romance that plays out at its own pace, to the mild frustration of its own participants, who don’t want to push each other’s boundaries too fast. Baltasar Kormákur rejects the cinematic bombast of Baltasar Kormákur, in favor of the quiet, lovely humanity of Baltasar Kormákur. Good job, Baltasar Kormákur.

A Focus Features release, “Touch” opens in theaters on Friday, July 12.

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