A moving love story with two exquisite central performances, “A Song for Martin” marks a welcome return by Bille August to a more intimate type of picture after a string of large-scale dramas. A chamber work about two people who meet late in life, and about a love that is not to be forever, pic is his best work in years, and will find most of its audience among mature auds seeking intelligent, thought-provoking entertainment.
Martin (Sven Wollter) is a world-famous conductor and composer in his early 60s, living in Gothenburg. During rehearsals for a concert, he meets and is attracted to the orchestra’s concertmaster, Barbara (Viveka Seldahl, Wollter’s real-life wife), who is in her early 50s. Both are married and have children, but they start a relationship and decide to divorce their respective spouses.
The news comes as an especial shock to their kids, even though they are all adults. After marrying, Martin and Barbara go on honeymoon to a luxurious hotel in Morocco.
Cut to five years later. Martin and Barbara are living in a beautiful house on the west coast of Sweden, and the two are working on a new opera by Martin. The opus is eagerly awaited by all his fans, and especially his manager and longtime friend, Biederman (Reine Brynolfsson). Suddenly, Barbara realizes that something is wrong with Martin’s memory, and he’s diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease.
Film follows the couple’s struggle to cope with the situation as Martin gets worse and worse. Barbara quickly realizes that it is only in his mind that Martin still functions as a composer, and she desperately tries to make him be like the man she met and fell in love with.
Martin, in his turn, becomes more and more irritable, and seems to want just to sink into the new personality the sickness has given him. Both try to hold on to the love they once shared.
Pic sounds grim and depressing but, even though it contains those elements, it is, above all, a celebration of love in the face of an all-conquering threat. As played by the excellent Wollter and Seldahl, the couple are totally believable characters from the start. Wollter, one of Sweden’s finest character actors, has never been better, and the same goes for the radiant Seldahl.
After uneasy forays into big-budget foreign productions (“Smilla’s Sense of Snow,” “Les Miserables”), August seems to have gained new confidence by working on a smaller film in Scandinavia again. With his regular main crew — including d.p. Jorgen Persson and art director Anna Asp — he’s created an evocative chamber drama in which actors and music combine to create a spellbinding mood. Pacing is slow, but this allows the viewer to get to know the characters well.
Special praise is due to composer Stefan Nilsson, whose concertos for Martin contain themes that still ring in your head days later.