Inhabiting areas of memory and emotion barely tapped in his previous movies, British-born writer-director Colin Nutley’s first feature set in his native land, “The Queen of Sheba’s Pearls,” is a slow-burning slice of period-Brit magical realism that pays powerful dividends in its final reels. Cast in depth, pic is toplined by Nutley’s regular muse-cum-wife, Swedish actress Helena Bergstrom, as a mysterious stranger who throws a tightly-wound English family for a loop in grim, post-WWII Blighty. This upscale, quality production deserves platforming at a major festival prior to specialized release. Pic opens in Sweden Dec. 25.
Residing in Sweden for the past two decades, during which time he’s become renowned for a series of often blackly comic views of his adopted country’s social mores (“House of Angels,” “The Last Dance,” “Such Is Life”), Nutley, at the ripe old age of 60, has reached down and summoned a picture that seems to reconcile both sides of a split life. Recognizably “Swedish” in its visual rigor and compositions, though thoroughly “British” in the power of its emotional suppression, “Pearls” is unquestionably his most substantial movie to date.
Bookended by scenes of an aged woman (Bergstrom) silently recalling earlier times, film plunges the viewer into the yarn with little backgrounding. The relationships among the many characters only become clear as things progress. Sideways approach to storytelling augurs the whole later tone of the film, which plays at one small remove from reality while remaining grounded in social niceties of the time.
Opening reels continue the dreamy atmosphere of the prologue, as pic flashbacks to 1944. Young mother Emily (Bergstrom) sees off her young son Jack at a train station. He is going to stay with his grandmother, Laura Pretty (Elizabeth Spriggs). In a rapid development that seems forced at the time but makes sense later on, when Jack arrives, Laura tells him Emily has been killed by a crashing airplane.
Cut to eight years later, and Jack (Rollo Weeks) is now a teenager at a traditional English public school — the curious rituals of which are succinctly sketched by Nutley with a gently raised eyebrow. At the sprawling country home where he lives with his extended family — Laura, her undertaker brother-in-law Edward (Peter Vaughan), her grown daughters Audrey (Lindsay Duncan) and Peggy (Natasha Little), and Jack’s dad, Harold (Lorcan Cranitch), who works for Edward — Jack is celebrating his 16th birthday when a glamorous Swedish blonde walks in and jaws drop. She’s an exact double of Jack’s late mom.
In these first three reels, Nutley serves up lot of detail that seems aimed at deliberately disconcerting the viewer. And as Laura sweeps the glamorous Nancy Ackerman (Bergstrom) out of the room, their oblique, clandestine conversation trades on information that no one else, including the audience, is yet party to.
Without any more explanation, Nancy takes up residence as a housemaid. For Jack, it’s as if his mother has come back to life again, especially as Nancy is wearing a pearl necklace that’s identical to his mom’s.
The gradual unraveling of the mystery of Nancy’s identity impacts on the whole family. But that’s only the first half of a film that fans out to include all their emotional lives.
In a beautifully graded finale, crosscutting between a village dance and Jack playing a kissing game (pic’s title) with girls his age, the script brings all the strands together in a warm and emotionally powerful celebration of the continuity of life, and how the past can indeed coexist with the present. As one character says, “A ship may go out of sight over a horizon, but it’s still there.”
Nutley has tiptoed through some of this territory in previous features (especially in “The Last Dance”), but there’s a scope and complexity to “Pearls” that’s totally new. Helmer has stated that, though pic is based on his own memories of growing up in southern England, it’s not autobiographical.
However, there’s a self-confidence in the writing and direction that seems to allow Nutley to take the gamble of a measured first hour (centered on the mystery of Nancy’s identity) before widening the film out into a broader emotional portrait. Ironically, Nutley’s Swedish films attracted attention for their forthright, very “un-Swedish” emotions and attitudes; British-set “Pearls,” in contrast, trades on emotional reservation.
In the type of role she’s often played before, Bergstrom is fine as the exotic foreigner who tolerates but doesn’t feel bound by local social rules, though the thesp is a tad too brittle to touch the core of her character’s sadness. She’s surrounded, however, by a top-flight lineup of British character actors: Duncan is marvelous as the acid-tongued Audrey, Cranitch comes through in the second half as the confused father, and Spriggs is aces as the wise old grandmother who’s spent a lifetime sitting on a shocking secret.
Only rarely does the movie’s grasp falter. A sequence between Nancy and an uptight school matron (vet Eileen Atkins) trades too obviously on national stereotypes, and some late-on comic shtick revolving around a death seems out of place amid the generally underplayed humor.
Tech package is aces, from Jens Fischer’s widescreen lensing of both interiors and (stunningly) some wide-open spaces to Per Andreasson’s warm, Nordic-tinged score. Period detail in costume and production design is spot on. Dialogue contains just a tiny amount of Swedish.