Although “Oslo” takes place nearly 30 years ago, recent events in Israel and the Palestinian territories reflect how timely the issues at the core of this HBO movie — a stark adaptation of the Tony-winning stage play — remain. Chronicling the back-channel efforts to forge an agreement between Israelis and Palestinians, the film considers the impediments to peace, then and now, and the power of human connection as the path to achieving it.
Beginning in 1992, the story is based on the efforts of Norwegian diplomats to break the impasse, with Andrew Scott (known to many as “Fleabag’s” “hot priest,” for better or worse) and Ruth Wilson (“The Affair”) as husband-and-wife Terje Rød-Larsen and Mona Juul, who saw “intimate discussions between people,” as Rød-Larsen’s character puts it, as the key to finding common ground.
Much like “Conspiracy,” a 20-year-old HBO movie about the Nazis crafting their “Final Solution,” the narrative plays out almost entirely within a confined space, as the negotiators on both sides squabble, rage and occasionally get drunk together, with the peace brokers imposing ground rules that say while they can be all business within the room, the parties must engage as people over meals outside of it.
The Norwegian contingent seeks to remain utterly impartial, avoiding any interference in the conversations other than laboring to keep both sides at the table, with the talks constantly teetering on the brink of collapse. That includes a shifting cast of characters on the Israeli side, and a sort of tough cop, much tougher cop combination of characters playing the Palestinian Liberation Organization side.
Three decades later, listening to the two sides wade through issues surrounding Gaza and Jerusalem underscores just how intractable the dispute has been, painfully demonstrated by the recent outbreak of violence. “Oslo” builds toward the entry of then Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres (Sasson Gabay) into the process, as both sides are pressed to relinquish the grievances of the past and, as Peres’ character says, “find a way to live in the present.”
Even with the cloak-and-dagger tactics to keep the talks secret, the format grinds slowly along for a time. Yet there’s considerable strength in the performances, which include not only Wilson and Scott (a formidable duo under any circumstances) but Salim Daw and Waleed Zuaiter as the chief PLO negotiators, Jeff Wilbusch as the director general of the Israeli Foreign Ministry, and Dov Glickman and Rotem Keinan as the Israeli economics professors enlisted to initiate the process.
HBO has positioned “Oslo” to premiere a few days before this year’s Emmy-eligibility deadline, ensuring the project — whose producers include Steven Spielberg — will be fresh in the minds of voters. Directed by Bartlett Sher and adapted by the play’s author J.T. Rogers, “Oslo” serves as a haunting portrayal of what was, and a sobering reflection on conditions as they currently exist.
In that sense, it’s a timely reminder when it comes to seeking peace between Israelis and Palestinians, how elusive the ideal of living in the present can be.
“Oslo” premieres May 29 at 8 p.m. ET on HBO, which, like CNN, is a unit of WarnerMedia.