This handsomely staged biography of Carl Nielsen, a celebrated Danish composer of the late 19th century, who rose from the humblest of peasant origins to achieve fame for his much-loved symphonies, is an inspiring pic. Though it may not have what it takes to snag theatrical distribution outside Scandinavian and select Euro territories, it should certainly be seen by quality-TV programmers worldwide.
Based on Nielsen’s autobiography, the film, as the title suggests, covers only the musician’s formative years and ends as he leaves the provinces to find fame and fortune in Copenhagen. Writer/director Erik Clausen has divided the film into three more or less equal segs, employing three look-alike actors to play Carl at the ages of 7, 15 and 19, much as Jane Campion did in “An Angel at My Table.”
Part one, 1871, intros Carl as a bright lad who lives in the countryside with his hard-working, but very poor, family that becomes reduced in number due to emigration and a TB scourge. Carl inherits a love of music from his father, who plays the fiddle in a local band and who teaches his son to play the instrument. Still, his brother Albert is a more talented musician until he’s sidelined by an accident (for which Carl’s unwittingly responsible).
Part two, 1879, has young Carl taken by his forceful mother to join an army post in provincial Odense, where he becomes the company bugler and teaches himself to play the piano. He falls under the influence of Outzen, an eccentric old man who plays honky-tonk piano in a cheap bar but who prefers to play Mozart whenever he can, and forms a promising relationship with Mormon barmaid Magda, which founders when she turns out to be more interested in his soul than in lovemaking.
Part three, 1883, depicts Carl starting to write his own music and to play at high society soirees. He forms a brief relationship with Anna, a haughty Swedish beauty who eventually rejects him.
This is a richly detailed, acutely observed production, beautifully cast and performed (the three actors who play Carl are all excellent), and several cuts above the average bio of a revered musician. The problem is that Carl himself is , at the ages depicted in the film, still too immature to emerge as a fully rounded character. But as a study of an uneducated and underprivileged child whose burning love of music drives him on despite the odds, the film, which Clausen has dedicated to his own son, is truly inspiring.