Dir/scr: Kay Pollak.Sweden-Denmark. 2004. 130mins
Sweden's entry in theforthcoming Academy Awards, As It Is In Heaven is an accomplishedcrowd-pleaser, and surely a front runner for this year's Film Most Likely To BeRemade By Hollywood.
A tragi-comic musical romancethat shamelessly but efficiently tugs the heartstrings, the determinedlymiddle-brow offering represents a comeback for veteran director Kay Pollak, whohas spent the 18 years since his last feature Love Me writing andlecturing on personal development.
That the film itself oftenfeels like a tract on inner fulfilment is unlikely to harm its commercialchances worldwide. It has scored a massive success in Sweden, topping thebox-office charts for seven weeks, and grossing nearly $10m to date.
The lack of a truly originaldramatic slant suggests that success outside Sweden will be solid rather thanspectacular. But, given the film's traditional affirmative message andtear-jerking payoff, its prospects with Academy look more than sound.
Top conductor Daniel Dareus(Nyqvist) is a highly-strung genius who puts down his baton after a heartattack and returns to the village in Northern Sweden where he spent his earlychildhood. He moves into the old schoolhouse and initially remains uneasilyaloof. But before long, he signs on as church cantor and choirmaster, andbefriends the village's various lovable eccentrics.
Among them are bullish carsalesman Arne (Jahkel), talented but self-effacing Gabriella (Sjoholm) - whoseviolent husband was Daniel's childhood nemesis - and above all, vivacious freespirit Lena (Hallgren), with whom Daniel soon clicks romantically.
Predictably, the maestro'sunconventional coaching methods unleash the inner flame in his charges, whoenthusiastically take to musical self-expression. And just as predictably,their trust helps Daniel come to terms with his own demons. Nor is it much of asurprise that his mustering of joyous team spirit causes much hostility amongthe village's conservative forces - notably, repressed pastor Stig (Falk),whose wife Inger (Olsson) has had her frustration salved by the joy of music.
Narratively and emotionally,Pollak hits all the expected buttons, and the film proceeds in a series ofconflicts, crises, reconciliations and full-voiced good-time moments, leadingup to a triumphal climax for the choir and a tragic (and incongruously morbid)conclusion for Daniel.
Tender-hearted and deeplyold-fashioned, the film nevertheless largely avoids sentimentality - at least,until the choir breaks into an impromptu Amazing Grace. What keeps the drama ontrack is its controlled and mature ensemble acting, centred around Nyqvist'squietly charismatic but inwardly stormy Daniel.
Foremost in the cast areFalk's stiff, troubled pastor, Olsson as his sensitive wife, and Helen Sjoholm,an established star of stage musicals, making a strong showing as the abusedGabriella, her solo turn proving something of a show-stopper. Frida Hallgren'sLena also energises the film - and adds a modicum of youth appeal - as itspersonable and down-to-earth love interest.
Stefan Nilsson's score -itself a bestseller on CD in Sweden - is a key selling point, with thecelestial harmonies of the closing number bringing a euphoric, even faintlyexperimental edge.
Cinematographer HaraldGunnar Paalgard fairly drenches the film in Nordic rural charm, but crisplyenough to avoid postcard cliches.
Prod cos: GF Studios, Sonet Film, K.Pollak Film, Filmpool Nord,SVT, Moviemakers Syd, Moviemakers Nord, Cinestar Rentals, Asa Film Prods
Int'l sales: Sonet Film
Swe dist: Sonet Film
Prods: Anders Birkeland, GoranLindstrom
Cine: Harald Gunnar Paalgard
Prod des: Mona Theresia Forsen
Ed: Thomas Tang
Music: Stefan Nilsson
Main cast: Michael Nyqvist, FridaHallgren, Helen Sjoholm, Lennart Jähkel, Niklas Falk, Ingela Olsson