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Classic literature about consuming passion and corrosive adultery often tends to sit stiffly on the screen when lacking a persuasive contemporary perspective, as evidenced by recent attempts to film novels like Therese Raquin and Madame Bovary. Bodice-ripping extramarital action is so last century. Veteran Swedish actress Pernilla August’s second feature as director (following 2010’s Beyond) can’t escape that fatigue. Adapted by Lone Scherfig from the 1912 novel by Hjalmar Soderberg, A Serious Game is an unexceptional costume melodrama that will chiefly be of interest at home, where lovers of the book can fill in the missing texture.
Filmed twice before, in 1945 and 1977, the story chronicles a lifelong love that’s thwarted and then blooms in secret only to be curtailed again and again, its festering after-effects causing pain for the lovers and for the unfortunates in their orbit. Scherfig — who wrote her breakout film, Italian for Beginners, but more recently has worked with other screenwriters, like Nick Hornby on An Education — plots the melancholy romance in a plodding fashion over two dawdling hours that are thin on illuminating social context, slipping into a monotonous rinse-and-repeat cycle of agony and ecstasy.
Part of the issue is casting, particularly in a movie in which the somewhat artless visual style suggests that emotive performance is the director’s main concern. The leads are perfectly capable, and they don’t hold back in conveying the raw feeling of two people eternally conflicted over their choices. But neither of them has quite the charisma needed to command the screen and hold us captive in their world.
Arvid Stjarnblom (Sverrir Gudnason) is a new proofreader at a Stockholm newspaper as the story begins. He meets Lydia Stille (Karin Franz Korlof) and her severe eyebrows for the first time when his editor-in-chief, Markel (Michael Nyqvist), takes him along to interview her father Anders (Goran Ragnerstam), a boozing painter, at their ramshackle cabin on an island in the Stockholm archipelago. A few meaningful glances, some soft-spoken words and a brush of fingers at the piano are all it takes to seal their love. (That tinkling piano motif is heard to death throughout the movie.) Lydia gives him one of her watercolors; on the back are written the words: “Away. I long to get away.”
She gets away when her father dies, just not far, since he left her penniless. But Arvid, now promoted to theater and opera critic, hesitates when he has the opportunity to marry her, because of ambition or or poverty or pride or other factors not really explained by the movie. “I have nothing. I am nothing,” he says, suggesting clandestine trysts, which she refuses. Instead she marries a wealthy older man, Roslin (Sven Nordin), and has a daughter. Arvid also marries for money, chosen by rather than choosing the pretty and pleasant Dagmar (Liv Mjones, excellent); he produces a daughter of his own. The respective offspring of Lydia and Arvid are named Marianne and Anne Marie, suggesting the mirror images of their situations.
Scherfig drops in mentions of social upheaval as women campaign for the vote. This seems to be intended to underscore both the restraints of Swedish society at the time and the ignition flame within Lydia as she attempts to steer her own destiny, often heedless of the consequences. But while she goes through the motions, the character’s arc never acquires much thematic heft, beyond being a victim of her poor choices, as is the frustratingly passive Arvid with his.
There’s an inadequate sense of the passing of time, but it appears to be about a decade later when Lydia and Arvid meet by chance with their spouses — at a performance of that slut show Carmen, significantly. While he attempts to resist, she seduces him the next day at her hotel. Lydia then becomes more aggressive about securing her happiness with Arvid, but he remains committed to his family. He does pack Dagmar and Anne Marie off for a summer holiday, accompanying Lydia back to her childhood island home for some frisky time in the sun. But when the illness of Arvid’s father (Staffan Gothe) forces him to cut short that idyll, Lydia is implacable.
August’s film has some pleasing moments of understatement, such as the gentle smile that crosses Anders’ lips as he gazes at his first byline, and his silent disappointment when his father seems unimpressed. The intuitive old man’s deathbed warning that happiness can bring ruin also resonates, as Dagmar overhears and correctly interprets it to mean that her marriage is in trouble.
But throughout the film, there’s a nagging feeling that much of the novelistic detail that might have brought this story to life has been shed. That applies, for instance, to the newspaper office scenes, though Nyqvist brings a warm spark to his role. Mikkel Boe Folsgaard (memorable as the imbecilic king in A Royal Affair) also has a moving scene as the paper’s foreign correspondent, whose past ties to Lydia resurface inconveniently.
Despite its deep well of sadness, however, the film remains a romantic dirge with minimal pathos. It’s also a little drab for a period piece. August and cinematographer Erik Molberg Hansen have chosen to shoot in the old boxy 1.33 aspect ratio, widening the frame only for seasonal transition shots. (This device was hindered by masking problems at the Berlin press screening.) It makes aesthetic sense as a way of showing the characters’ confinement, but adds to the cramped televisual feel. Shooting with handheld cameras also in theory should echo the restlessness of people constantly seizing happiness to have it slip through their fingers, but it looks untidy rather than stylistically effective.
A Serious Game isn’t bad so much as pedestrian, recalling middlebrow Euro films from 20 or 30 years ago. But it lacks the star power or electric chemistry to make us care very deeply about its hindered romance.
Venue: Berlin Film Festival (Berlinale Special)
Production company: B-Reel Films
Cast: Sverrir Gudnason, Karin Franz Korlof, Liv Mjones, Michael Nyqvist, Goran Ragnerstam, Mikkel Boe Folsgaard, Sven Nordin, Richard Forsgren, Staffan Gothe, Goran Ragnerstam
Director: Pernilla August
Screenwriter: Lone Scherfig, based on the novel by Hjalmar Soderberg
Producers: Patrik Andersson, Frida Bargo, Fredrik Heinig
Executive producer: Mattias Nohrborg
Director of photography: Erik Molberg Hansen
Production designer: Anna Asp
Costume designer: Kicki Ilander
Music: Matti Bye
Editor: Asa Mossberg
Casting: Jeanette Klintberg
Not rated, 115 minutes
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