Discreet, old fashioned, traditional and altogether admirable, this is Jan Troell in what he does best, a period drama about a woman photographer living in Sweden at the turn of the last century. Paying minute attention to the smallest details, taking its time but never appearing to drag its feet, immensely sympathetic to its heroes and villains alike, this is an intimate family portrait and at the same time a rich canvass of working class life at that particular time.
A natural for Troell, who was a photographer before starting to direct (his latest, the 2003 documentary feature Presence was dedicated to a photographer friend), this picture has quality stamped all over it, awards are likely to come its way whether for direction, photography or the performances of Maria Heiskanen and Mikael Persbrandt, and if this may not be the most suitable material for impatient under-20 audiences, it could easily charm all the rest, going beyond the strict confinements of art house and festival crowds.
Agneta Ulstater Troell, the director's wife, based the novel she wrote and its subsequent screen adaptation on the life of her own ancestor, Maria Larsson, a simple woman married to a charming but hopeless redneck, who became a photographer at a time when no woman would have dreamt of embracing such a profession and no man, certainly not the kind of working class lout she had for a husband, would condone it.
Emerging behind the story of the married couple and their seven children, there is the image of Sweden itself in the early 1900's assuming its capitalistic identity, while labour unrest is erupting all over the place, socialism and anarchism are blossoming in the shadow of strikes and public demonstrations and strict protestant traditions still overrule any thoughts of women's rights or common sense. Over it all, there is Jan Troell eye behind the camera, wrapping it all up in splendid monochromatic images, a perfect choice to portray working class life of that time, also allowing some stunning visual effects, such as showing a girl walking away into the frozen wintry mist and disappearing in front of one's eyes.
Maria (Heiskanen), who got her camera in a lottery, ignored it for years, far too busy working her fingers to the bone, first as a cleaning woman and then as a seamstress. Married to Sigfrid (Persbrandt), a former sailor fond of drink and women, frustrated by his own inadequacies and often venting his temper on his wife, she had far too much on her plate to think about photography at all. One day she tries to sell the camera to the local photographer (Christensen), who insists she should try it first before getting rid of it and offers her some useful tips. This is the beginning of a beautiful, platonic friendship which Sigfrid hates and distrusts, his wife's hobby pointing out his own limitations, which went unmentioned before, for fear of his wrath. But Maria is a tough woman, with every new crisis she stands up to him a bit more, though to the bewilderment of her oldest daughter, Maja (Ohrvall), who narrates the story, never does she muster the courage to leave him. Even for such a strong person as Maria, flaunting traditions to the wind beyond a certain point, was not an option.
Told in a precise, authoritative manner, the dense fabric of the plot and all its various ingredients are put together in an exemplarily clear narrative, accompanied by a spectacularly homogenous visual style. Heiskanen's Maria is a striking character, a small, determined, courageous woman, who dares her husband and her fate, fiercely defends her brood and almost gives up her natural talent for images, only for their benefit. Sigfrid, as played by Persbrandt, is a cheerful brute who has trouble controlling either his thirst or his temper. The two, pitted against each other, are the driving force behind a plot which, despite its considerable length, never overstays its welcome.
Agnes Ulfsater Troell
Director of photography
Niels Pagh Andersen