For a classic novel whose fans insist that Hjalmar Soderberg’s 1912 romance not only holds up but reads with fresh relevance today, “A Serious Game” yields a drearily old-fashioned costume drama — one that’s mired less by its turn-of-the-century setting than an unfortunate early-1980s directorial style, when such productions had a regular home on the small screen. Around that time, actress-turned-helmer Pernilla August herself appeared in Ingmar Bergman’s “Fanny and Alexander,” which might have been a fine model, had not her every creative choice — from the fusty Euro-TV acting to an almost-square Academy aspect ratio — made this Lone Scherfig-scripted adaptation feel so airlessly uncinematic.
Funny how a two-hour film can sometimes feel longer than a six-hour miniseries, if only because it fails to supply the qualities that might bring its characters to life. Perhaps those already familiar with Soderberg’s “The Serious Game” (source material beloved in Sweden, but largely unknown beyond its borders) already have reason to favor Arvid Stjarnblom’s character, though the anti-charismatic young man (played here by sun-starved, slack-shouldered Sverrir Gudnason) comes across a bit too passively for those accustomed to proactive American protagonists.
A rather pitiful and introverted character, not unlike a Scandi version of Herman Melville’s “Bartleby, the Scrivener,” Arvid has recently moved to Copenhagen, where he hopes to make a career as a copy editor for the Nationalbladet journal. When his editor (“The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo’s” Michael Nyqvist, a more interesting actor with a far more natural energy) drags him along to visit a painter at his lake house, Arvid shyly catches the eye of the artist’s daughter, Lydia Stille (Karin Franz Korlof).
Arvid is powerfully attracted to Lydia, but can barely muster the energy to flirt. A short while later, when presented with the opportunity to ask for her hand in marriage, he decides that he would prefer not to. Everything that follows hinges on this decision, which might have taken on a more tragic dimension in another director’s hands. At the moment, Arvid fears he lacks the means to provide for Lydia — but she can’t exactly wait for him to establish himself professionally. Therefore, she marries an older and far wealthier man, while a resentful Arvid eventually meets a well-to-do young lady, Dagmar (Liv Mjones), and gets hitched as well.
For a while, their lives go in separate directions — he is promoted to reviewing opera for the paper, she delivers a baby girl — until by chance, he finds himself seated behind her at the theater one night. The next day, he appears at her hotel and they have polite, unexciting sex. Despite the over-insistent agitation of Matti Bye’s simplistic and irksomely repetitive piano score, whatever passion had been welling up all these years can scarcely be felt amid these starchy costumes and stiff performances.
Lying to his wife about learning Russian after work, Arvid launches into a full-blown affair, although even after Lydia leaves her own husband, he doesn’t think to seek a divorce — yet another thing he’d prefer not to. What then does he want? It’s hard to say, as even the sex seems tepid. In one scene, Arvid sneaks away to the old lake house with Lydia, and August shows him reading in one corner while she paints at the desk.
A scorching love affair this is not — though a more sensual director certainly could have steered it in that direction. Soderberg’s novel is known for being thoughtful, even philosophical at times, which Scherfig and August dilute to an ambiguous form of melancholy: Arvid seems fixated on what might have been, while the script serves up but fails to develop any number of potentially more exciting lovers for Lydia — from Arvid’s lovelorn boss (a bachelor, Nykvist’s character envies the marriage Arvid takes for granted) to the nerdy colleague who’d served as his alibi (Mikkel Boe Folsgaard).
And so, as widescreen title cards mark the passing time (a curious choice, reinforcing the dramatic portions’ boxed-in aspect ratio while completely disregarding the fact that entire years elapse between “seasons”), Arvid attempts to reconcile the choice that relegated what might have been a happy marriage to the realm of the illicit. As his story advances, Lydia — who always enjoyed swimming alone — takes increasing control of her own life, as August shifts the focus of her empathy from Arvid’s perspective (from which the novel is told) to Lydia’s daring declaration of independence.