Tuesday 11 January 2011

Skarsgårds and other Swedes

Passing through customs at Stockholm's Arlanda airport, you find the photographs of famous Swedes on the walls getting bigger. The final hall of fame includes (if I remember rightly) various Abbas, Bergmans Ingrid and Ingmar, Borg and...Stellan Skarsgård (heck, I'm only doing the accent on that one). Which surprised me, as I can only remember him in two of Lars von Trier's films, Breaking the Waves and Dogville.

To fans of vampire dramas, he will be praised as the father of sexy Alexander Skarsgård, who to be honest I've never knowingly seen in anything. But of Stellan's three other acting offspring, I've been hugely impressed by Gustaf (born 1980, pictured above left with Torkel Petersson and Thomas Ljungman in Patrik, Age 1.5, more of which anon) and Bill (born 1990). Sweet Bill played wacky youths in two out of four films we had the great privilege to view just about before anyone else in Bergman's private cinema on Faro last June. I wasn't allowed to talk about them then, but I can now since they've been doing the rounds of film festivals and Simple Simon, equal first in my and the other, more well versed-film critics' affections, is Sweden's entry for Best Foreign Oscar.

It beat the much plainer storytelling of Behind Blue Skies, based on a real rites of passage story honing in on the Swedish yachts-and-drugs scandal of the 1970s. 'Simple Simon' is a boy with Asperger's syndrome whose relationship with his brother and his brother's girlfriend is told in witty, only occasionally poignant terms.

It's a cinematic work in that director Andreas Ohman superimposes graphs and clocks representing Simon's obsession with figures and precise timekeeping. Otherwise modest in its ambition, Simple Simon is a real one-off, and by the time it reaches the heights of sentiment, we're warmed up enough to accept them. Here's the trailer (you'll need to click on the moving image to go widescreen on YouTube)

A couple of nights ago we watched Bill's older brother Gustaf give an equally lovable performance as a very decent gay man in Ella Lemhagen's Patrik, Age 1.5. The premise is that Gustaf's character and his 'Mann' (Torkel Petersson) are up for adopting a 1.5 year old child. What they get, owing to the slipping in of a comma (1,5) is a 15 year old supposed delinquent (Thomas Ljungman). Who is from the start, despite his avowed violence and homophobia, essentially a sweet-natured youth who just needs to be loved.

Now we know from friends who've had the most disturbing problems with a late-adopted boy that all the love in the world might not be enough for a troubled child. But give the film's premise the benefit of the doubt, and some of the story's unpredictable twists and turns do help to make it genuinely moving.

But I ought also to give a charismatic young actress a look-in. And this isn't mere tokenism because we privileged spectators on Faro placed Alicia Vikander's spellbinding performance in Lisa Langseth's Pure equal first with Bill's in Simple Simon.

True, this at times slightly pretentious but more often troubling film has its faults. Katarina is a girl from one of the relatively underprivileged housing estates on the edge of Goteborg, swept up into a different world of music when she attends a performance of Mozart's Requiem in the city's glorious Concert Hall which allows her to escape an abusive background. Unfortunately the music that's played isn't always what they say they're hearing, or going to hear, in the script, and there's a bit of nonsense with 'the Rachmaninov Concerto' which will make anyone in the know want to spit. I was surprised, too, that the sound quality of the Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra recordings didn't come over too well, and the system on Faro was well up to state-of-the-art reproduction.

It's also a bit of a shame that attractive Samuel Froler's conductor...well, I won't spoil the plot. But what carries it are the beautiful cinematography and the way that dwells on Vikander's very changeable face. Like Sibel Kekilli in When We Leave, surely the performance of the year, she can look beautiful and happy or drawn and miserable. That's the asset of great screen acting.

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