Another cold Swedish family tries to keep its secrets in the icebox in Hakan Bjerking’s feature helming debut “No Tears,” a well-crafted but ultimately unsatisfying drama with some nice ideas left underdeveloped by a weak script. Pic shuttles back and forth in time to reveal the compromises and heartaches of two generations, seeking to explain emotions frozen into superficial smiles that only decades of therapy would be able to thaw out. Autumn opening at home passed without much fluster, relegating offshore life to fests featuring Scandi fare.
When Elisabeth (Basia Frydman) turns 75, son Magnus (Per Graffman) decides it’s time for a family photograph. A professional shutterbug himself, he’s been struck by the absence of group shots — no holiday snaps, no posed portraits, just a mysterious pic of his two siblings with a mystery woman no one wants to identify.
What’s revealed, more to auds than to Magnus himself, is a family history of illicit unions and strangled alliances. His mother, Elisabeth (played as a young woman by Alexandra Rapaport), herself an illegitimate child, was forced to give up her own bastard daughter, eventually finding an initial patch of stability in the arms of handsome, strong Lars (Mikael Persbrandt).
But Lars turns out to be alcoholic and abusive, especially to young son Magnus (Robert Lindberg), and Elisabeth retreats into depression. In the present, with Lars now dying in hospital and Mom’s birthday approaching, the adult Magnus thinks he can heal family wounds by tracking down his long-lost half-sister, but surprises aren’t the wisest course of action.
Bjerking (a producer before making his helming debut) starts off well, injecting a few touches of humor in the opening scenes, but soon gets bogged down by his own script with too-frequent flashbacks. Relationships as well as motivations are introduced only to be passed over: Why does Lars pick on Magnus and not the other kids, and why has it taken Magnus so long to begin to deal with his past? Magnus’ alternate lack of backbone and then sudden strength make for a confusing characterization, especially as early scenes with wife Anette (Ane Dahl Torp) seem to offer a glimpse of adult happiness that disappears far too quickly.
Handsome lensing is pic’s strong suit, with special attention paid to light cast by the cold northern sun; flashbacks are signaled by silvery olive tonalities. Costumes and production design are well matched to personalities and timeframes.