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Posted by martinteller on January 7, 2015

It’s a harsh winter in 1860’s Sweden, and farmhand Helge Roos (Stellan Skarsgård) is starving.  So are his wife Elfrida (Ewa Fröling) and infant daughter.  In a brutal burst of desperation, he slaughters one of two oxen belonging to his master, Svenning Gustavsson (Lennart Hjulström).  Elfrida is conscience-stricken by her husband’s rash act, while Helge scrambles to keep it under wraps.  Eventually he confesses to the town vicar (Max von Sydow), who encourages Helge to turn himself in.  The punishment is 40 lashes… and life imprisonment with hard labor.

I wanted to see this for two reasons.  The first is that it’s one of the few films directed by the excellent cinematographer Sven Nykvist, and the only one that is at all available.  Nykvist was Ingmar Bergman’s regular director of photography from the 1960’s onward, and also worked with Louis Malle, Bob Fosse, Woody Allen and Andrei Tarkovsky (and he worked on With Honors, but we can’t blame him for that mess).  The other reason was the cast.  It’s also loaded with regulars, including Liv Ullmann and Erland Josephson.

Unfortunately, Ullmann and Josephson are relegated to very minor roles.  There’s a good amount of von Sydow, but it’s mostly Skarsgård and Fröling.  Which is fine, I like them (Fröling most notable as the mother in Fanny and Alexander) but I feel a little led astray by the billing, which puts both Ullmann and Josephson well above Björn Granath (who later turned in a stunning performance in Bergman’s The Last Gasp).  Granath certainly is a more significant character than either, playing an antagonistic figure… it was never quite clear to me what his beef was with Helge, but I gathered that perhaps he had once competed for Elfrida’s affection.

Aaaaaanyway, the performances are all fine even if I was disappointed not to see more of my favorites.  But the film as a whole doesn’t have much to say.  It’s a lot of austerity and misery and one awful thing happening after another.  When it comes to the subjects of conscience or forgiveness or morality, it’s rather empty and trite.  The ending is surprisingly pat.  But the photography is quite good, as one would expect, with lighting that makes me think of Vermeer.  And I do think the dramatic beats of the film are good and well-structured and engaging.  I just wish they didn’t leave me thinking, “So what?”  Rating: Good (70)


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