A middle-aged Swedish poet loses his place among the cultural elite, forcing him to make ends meet by performing dehumanizing manual labor alongside immigrants at the Port of Malmo in “The Yard,” Mans Mansson’s highly cinematic, entirely unsentimental adaptation of the prize-winning novel of the same name by Kristian Lundberg. Although the book was written in 2009, the film feels utterly of the moment it depicts, conveying the plight of desperate workers exploited by unscrupulous employers, and so subjugated that they’re forced to make dubious moral choices. Following premieres at Goteborg and Berlin, further festival travel should segue to Euro broadcast play, with niche theatrical exposure in some markets.
As the narrative begins, the never-named sad-sack protagonist (theater actor Anders Mossling, laconically eloquent in his first leading role on screen) seems to be having some sort of midlife crisis. He’s used his commission as a literary critic for a leading newspaper to trash his own latest book — a stupid move that sends him into a downward spiral, provoking his dismissal and the scorn of his colleagues. Meanwhile, he’s also failing as the sole provider for his surly teenage son (Axel Roos), who berates him for writing books that no one wants to read.
Through the ironically titled temp agency, “Dream Job,” our protagonist passes degrading drug and urine tests to become employee 11811 at the port’s highly regimented trans-shipment hub for new cars. His co-workers, most of them immigrants clad in orange jumpsuits, can barely credit that a native Swede would take such a job, and suspect him of being a spy for management, which has instituted a system of bonuses for those informing on fellow employees. At first, 11811 is willing to stand up to the supervisors when he sees them being arbitrary and unfair to the other workers, but he quickly earns a reputation for being difficult and, soon, a summary dismissal. Finally, cut to the quick by his son’s disgust and disbelief as the bailiffs repossess their flat-screen TV, he is driven to make a decision to essentially sell his soul.
While other filmmakers might have adopted a more straightforward and emotionally manipulative approach to the material, Sara Nameth’s coolly observant screenplay focuses more on the choices an individual makes, making “The Yard” a study in loneliness as well as the structure of authority. Although the film’s commercial potential might be limited by its lack of a conventional narrative, as well as the way it elides background information on the protagonist and avoids giving psychological reasons for his earlier behavior, what helmer Mansson (“Stranded in Canton”) has wrought here is both powerful and provocative.
Mansson successfully transmits the essence of Lundberg’s prose through ace lenser Ita Zbroniec-Zajt’s evocative images and Lene Willumsen’s outstandingly stylized production design. A key image — a long shot of a tiny orange figure practically lost in a sea of shiny white cars — speaks volumes about the isolation of the work experience at the yard. Many sequences convey the tedium, mechanization and lack of solidarity among the workers, but perhaps none more so than one in which see see lines of silent men waiting to zap their lunches in the company microwaves; the dominating sound is the cheery ding marking the end of a heating cycle. Patrik Stromdahl’s sound design is another key element in a strong tech package, and the well-chosen diegetic music provides ironic commentary on the action.