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MONTREAL — First-time helmer Jan Vardoen has a plan to make Ibsen less intimidating in Heart of Lightness, a mock behind-the-scenes look at a bedeviled film production of the playwright’s The Lady from the Sea. Understandably more interested in the 1889 play than he is in a setup that threatens to diminish it, he doesn’t quite follow through; but for many casual viewers, his conceptually iffy comedic touches will have the desired effect. A strong cast of British thesps, performing in English against stunning Norwegian vistas, won’t hurt a bit with Stateside auds.
Inviting us to question how self-referential the movie is, Vardoen plays a filmmaker named Jan, a drunk who has taken money from the Norwegian Film Institute to make a movie but has spent it on London barhopping instead. Stumbling across a production of The Lady and realizing the script is public domain, he sees a solution: Impulsively inviting the cast to Norway, he plans to crank a filmed version out using local film students as unpaid crew.
But as we begin to see the scenes they shoot on location, the thoughtfulness of the staging and performances belies Vardoen’s ginned-up comedic conflict: His fictional Jan is exerting no control over the shoot, while the play’s theatrical director, convinced he should steer the film, has no idea how stage acting differs from acting for camera. Though the rivalry between the men (and the calm professionalism of the student A.D.) is good for occasional laughs, this trainwreck-production plot makes no sense in light of what’s actually going on “on set” as the cameras roll.
Other backstage events resonate more effectively with Ibsen’s drama, as with the strains on the actors playing husband-and-wife Doctor Wangel (Dominic Mafham) and Ellida (Laura Donnelly); both the actors and the characters they play are caught in what might be the last throes of a relationship. Even so, as the film shifts its weight and lets more of Ibsen’s scenes play out uninterrupted, many viewers will wish they were watching this cast in a straightforward adaptation of the play. Grumblers will be placated to a large extent by the fjords and fields in which all the action plays out, transporting landscapes that the filmmakers shot using only the midnight sunlight of Norway’s summertime.
Production company: Beacon Isle Films
Cast: Laura Donnelly, Dominic Mafham, Sam Heughan, Daisy Head, Rosie Day, Richard Lumsden, Michael Colgan
Director-Screenwriter-Producer: Jan Vardoen
Directors of photography: Petter Holmern, Patrik Safstrom
Editor: Ove-Kenneth Nilsen
Music: Edvard Grieg, Jan Vardoen
No rating, 109 minutes
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