“Not everyone is endowed with the gift of seeing,” a photographer confides to his promising student in “Everlasting Moments.” But not only does Swedish director-writer-cinematographer Jan Troell possess this gift in overwhelming abundance, he has the talent to allow the viewer to see the souls of his characters and the salient details of the world they inhabit. Artistically on a plane with or near the vet filmmaker’s best work, this period drama about a woman slowly discovering her metier is an artisanal creation par excellence that will be appreciated by discerning arthouse patrons worldwide.
Set across the period of about a decade beginning in 1907, this episodic, true-life-inspired story examines a cultural, political and artistic crossroads in intensely personal terms, specifically through a husband and wife whose many conflicts don’t prevent them from producing seven children.
Aesthetically, “Everlasting Moments” could scarcely be more at odds with contemporary fashion; in a time when cinematic images are manipulated, degraded or altered, Troell’s continued use of mostly natural light seems like a bracing rediscovery of a style that was fairly commonplace, and highly valued, in the ’60s and ’70s. Beholding Troell’s exquisite images is like having your eyes washed, the better to behold moving pictures of uncorrupted purity and clarity. Troell’s style has never changed, yet witnessing it again, or for the first time, has the power of a revelation.
Narrated judiciously by oldest daughter Maja (Callin Ohrvall), yarn is centered on her mother, Maria Larsson (Maria Heiskanen), a Finnish-born woman whose every thought is of her family. Posing a perennial problem, however, is her husband, Sigge (Mikael Persbrandt), a handsome, bull-like dockworker who’s often drunk and abusive.
Happening upon a Contessa camera she won in a lottery but never used, Maria tries to pawn it when the dockworkers go on strike, but instead is shown how to use it by solicitous storeowner Sebastian Pedersen (Jesper Christensen). Slowly, and with no consciousness of “art,” Maria discovers her natural bent for taking insightful, haunting pictures, helped along by lessons in the darkroom from Sebastian, who, due to reticence and perhaps their notable age difference, refrains from acting on his growing feelings for his protegee.
For Maria, daily life is always throwing things at her that keep her from her photography. When British scabs arrive to fill the jobs of the socialist-inspired strikers, Sigge, who’s taken up with a barmaid, becomes identified with a fatal dynamiting of an English ship, ending his boat-loading days. But, much as she might like to be rid of Sigge, Maria can’t bring herself to cut the cord.
At the midway point, action jumps ahead to 1914. When Sigge is called up for military service, Maria begins making money by taking group pictures and Christmas portraits; she even photographs the three Scandinavian kings when they meet to discuss policy, while Sebastian takes newsreel footage. Things only get worse again when Sigge returns, and to the very end, life has a way of giving with one hand and taking with the other.
Maria’s gradual comprehension of her photographic gifts comes in direct opposition to her estrangement from her husband. Gently in the background are felt the larger movements of history, from the war to the socialist-capitalist showdowns to the continued emigration of Swedes to the United States.
Heiskanen carries the film as Maria, a modest woman who quietly absorbs most adversity except when it comes to her husband’s drinking. It’s not a showy role per se, and Heiskanen doesn’t possess movie star-type radiance, but Maria’s durability and embodiment of common-woman virtues draw one in. By contrast, Sigge is both a big man and a huge personality, thanks to Persbrandt’s grand performance. One of Sweden’s most popular stars, he will certainly boost his international profile with his outsized turn.
Production details transport the viewer back a century with utter credibility, and the camerawork makes every second an intense pleasure.
A correction was made to this review on Oct. 1, 2008.