Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Sat Oct 20, 2012 5:56 pm 
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Finding yourself in 1940's Gothenberg

The hook of this not very involving Swedish WWII bildingsroman (based on the 1985 bestseller by Marianne Fredriksson) is that the boy protagonist is adopted and later finds out he's his aunt's son, by a vanished German Jewish violinist. So that's why he likes music, became pals with a Jewish boy at the fancy city school he begs to be sent to -- and why he and his countrified carpenter and boat-builder dad have so often been at odds. It takes him a long time to find out who he is. But the journey as followed on screen lacks urgency amid the meandering subplots and ultimately who he is isn't so interesting. Another defect: Jonatan S. Wachter who plays young Simon as a boy has a sensitivity and subtlety quite lacking in his bland overrsized choirboy replacement, Bill Skarsgård, son of Stellan, who plays Simon as a young adult.

The young Simon is a dreamy boy who stays up in a giant oak tree he personifies and talks to. He reads about far off lands and sees camels in the clouds. He won't fight and work as his (adoptive) father Erik Larsson (Stefan Godicke) wants, though he manages to knock down an antisemitic bully his first day at the fancy city school, thus becoming fast friends with Isak (Karl Martin Eriksson), whose father is a very wealthy German Jewish book dealer who has escaped from Nazi Berlin with Isak and his deranged wife.

Simon and Isak essentially switch dads, Isak finding comfort in carpentry amd boat designing from traumas under the Nazis and Simon connecting with Isak's father Ruben Lentov (Jan Josef Liefers, the one adult actor who projects real complexity), finding it a revelation when they go to a classical concert together that Simon says he knew he had "heard before." Genetic memory?

As the Nazis invade the surrounding countries and Sweden reveals antisemitic tendencies, and Isak's unstable mother freaks out and is put into a sanatorium, Isak drops out of school and spends all his time in the country with Erik learning carpentry, while Simon takes piano lessons. There is conflict for years to come between Ruben and Erik over Ruben's desire to help out financially, and Ruben is obviously very attracted to Simon's mother Karin (Helen Sjoholm), the film's emotional core. Ruben goes back and forth frequently between the town of Gothenberg and the country. When Simon discovers high culture he rejects his great oak tree, which stirs up a wind storm in an animistic protest that he stills by throwing a rock at it. Such scenes might work better if you've read the novel, and much of this feels like a bland variation on familiar stuff, but Jewish persecution and WWII are always themes that stir up excitement.

Simon's young adult phase after the war is weaker for various reasons. Karin has a heart attack and Ruben and, Erik having joined for a boat construction business, the country house gets a modern kitchen, indoor restroom, and central heating. The older Isak continues to work with Erik but fades into the background as Simon carries out his own explorations, studying archaeology. Brief episodes with two young women. Iza (Katharina Schuttler), a kinky concentration camp survivor relative of Ruben's, fails to turn him on with her desire to be smacked during sex. A longer lasting liaison with a bespectacled intellectual girl at school, Klara (Erica Lofgren), doesn't seem much of a sexual or emotional awakening, from the viewer's point of view. And the tall, cherubic Bill Skarsgård, comely though he may be, has a sweet face that conveys little of the complexity of Simon's smaller incarnation. Moreover big Simon's more active rejection of Karin and Erik makes him appear a bully and an ingrate and loses him the appeal he had earlier.

Simon's discovery of his father and mother, on the other hand, is a thread that garners classic Tom Jones sympathy, though the adventure is less lively than Fielding's. There is a strong, surprisingly sympathetic scene with the gnarly Inga (Cecilia Nilsson), Karin's semi-outcast sister and his true mother, who has kept a letter in German from his real father, the Jewish violinist. Ruben checks this out and goes with Simon to Berlin where he meets his uncle, a conductor. His father has died three years earlier, but not in the Holocaust, of cancer: both miraculously survived (in Germany?).

Simon and the Oaks is strongest when Karin is on the scene or when it's depicting a boy discovering classical music and finding it magical. The images by Dan Laustsen are handsome and the sense of period is good and the rich score by Annette Fock is satisfying. The movie is not without engaging and touching moments. But despite international success, Simon lacks anything to make it special. It feels like a rehash of many other pictures with just a touch of Swedishness pasted in; it quite lacks the magic of Jan Troell's historical sagas.

Simon and the Oaks/Simon och ekarna, in Swedish, 122 mins. debuted at Hamburg in Oct. 2011 and went on to other festivals, with releases in Sweden, Norway, and elsewhere. It went into limited US release October 12, 2012.

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