Dir/scr: ColinNutley. Swe-UK. 2004. 130mins.
Lush decor,swooping cinematography and stirring music. Director Colin Nutley makes hiscanvas clear from the opening frames of The Queen Of Sheba's Pearls, apassionate 1950s-set drama about growing up, love, loss and lingering memories.
The film, Nutley's first for ages set in his nativeEngland, rather than his adopted Sweden, is dated as the big Christmas Dayrelease in Sweden and seems a possible contender for a Berlin festival place.
For Nutley, whois sometimes considered an acquired taste, a tear-soaked Berlinale Palast couldbe exactly the platform needed to proclaim a major breakthrough and aconnection to commercial audiences outside the Nordic region. TV programmerswill happily play up the potential for melodrama.
While he isbeing evacuated to the countryside, schoolboy Jack Bradley (Weeks) learns thathis beautiful mother (Bergstrom) is killed by a doomed Spitfire. Stiff upperlips and the first of many funerals ensue.
But eight yearsto the day there is high drama when the buttoned-down collection of aunts,uncles and grandparents that he now lives with receive an unexpected Swedishvisitor who is the spitting image of his missing ma.
For a fewminutes the audience is treated to a guessing game as to whether the film willturn into a ghost story or a drama, and there is comedy when the bright as abutton visitor is employed as a maid and then dismissed by one of the aunts onan utterly transparent pretext.
But it rapidly becomes clear that this household, wherevicars and undertakers sleep side-by-side, has skeletons in its polished glassand mahogany cabinets. The visitor, Nancy Ackerman (Bergstrom again) isrevealed as a twin illegitimate daughter separated from Jack's mother at birthand transported abroad.
Jack's sad-sap ex-marine dad (Cranitch) cannot decide whetherhe is still married to his widow's memory or whether he should allow himself tofall for the vivacious beauty that has given him a second chance. Clearly thecatalyst among the pigeons, Nancy's presence also triggers a chain reaction ofother amorous liaisons. She even appears as a spookily prescient fairygodmother for Jack, now at boarding school and undergoing all the pains ofpuberty and anxieties of first love.
The title, TheQueen Of Sheba's Pearls, is both the name of a juvenile sex game and a significantsub-plot that connects Jack's mother, Nancy, their half-sisters (Little andDuncan), Jack and undertaker-grandfather Edward (Vaughan).
Although much ofthe film is shot in interiors, the palate is rich, ranging from sepias to burntout daylight shots that play up Bergstrom's blonde mane and ruby details. Thecombination of glossy cinematography, lush sets and glorious costume design area Nordic riposte to the Wong Kar Wai-Chris Doyle-William Chang combo withBergstrom happily established as Nutley's Maggie Cheung.
Nutley createsan atmosphere that is at once claustrophobic and soaring, enabling him to weavetogether several parallel stories of differing weight. These range from thecruelties of boarding school, to a dig at the British inability to deal withforeigners and their troublesome languages and a light-hearted plot about thedifficulty of being an undertaker in peacetime.
Acting is that of a classic British ensemble cast and it wouldbe unfair to pick any of them out, although Lindsay Duncan and Natasha Little,as two sisters, are delightfully catty. Helena Bergstrom, Nutley's muse and onscreen regular, does a fine job in English with the occasional line in Swedish.
There is alargely-superfluous framing device with the old Nancy and her jewel box. Betterare the regular dream-like visitations from Jack's mum, who reminds her sonthat the dead are still with us long after they have gone - as Nutley'ssensuous return to the English-language is likely to be.
Prod cos: Sweetwater Filmrights, Svensk Filmindustri, SvenskaFilminstitutet, Random Harvest Film Partnership, AKA Films, TV4 Sweden, NordiskFil & YTV Fond
Int'l sales: Svensk Filmindustri
Swe dist: Svensk Filmindustri
Exec prods: Poa Stroemberg, Kim Ballard, Melvyn Singer, Alistair Maclean-Clar
Prods: Judith Hackett, Maritha Norstedt, Nutley
Cine: Jens Fischer
Prod des/art dir: Pernilla Olsson, Andrea Coathupe
Cost: Frances Tempest, Camilla Thulin
Ed: Perry Schaffer
Main cast: Helena Bergstrom, Lorcan Cranitch, Lindsay Duncan, Natasha Little,Elizabeth Spriggs, Peter Vaughan, Rollo Weeks