The Disciple (Larjungen): Film Review

A restrained but hard-hitting drama set on a Finnish island in 1939.

This Finnish foreign-language Oscar submission, which is actually in Swedish, is directed by Ulrika Bengts and stars Erik Lonngren, Patrik Kumpulainen and Niklas Groundstroem.

A 13-year-old orphan in 1939 Finland tries to hold on to his position as an assistant of a tyrannical lighthouse master in The Disciple (Larjungen), a sober but effective drama from Finnish director Ulrika Bengts.

Only her second feature after work in theater and TV, shorts, documentaries and a single fiction film, Iris, Bengts’ latest demonstrates her firm reign on the drama’s tone and she manages to elicit uniformly sterling performances from her cast that includes the young Erik Lonngren, who also starred in Iris and here impresses in the title role. Visually, however, The Disciple occasionally feels too TV-like in its preference for medium shots, especially when such fantastic faces and landscapes are on offer throughout.

Finland, which has a Swedish-speaking minority, submitted the film for foreign-language Oscar consideration. It has also been selected for the awards buzz section at the upcoming Palm Springs Film Festival.

Though it plays like a lost Scandinavian fin-de-siecle drama that could have been written by someone like Swedish novelist and dramatist August Strinberg, whose books even make an appearance here, the naturalistic drama was actually written by Roland Fauser and Swedish-born screenwriting veteran Jimmy Karlson, the latter best known for his collaborations with Finnish director Klaus Haro (Mother of Mine, Elina).

It’s a rigorously structured and written yet austere study of how the arrival of an essentially innocent 13-year-old, the orphan Karl (Lonngren), can wreak havoc on what, at least from the outside, looks like a normally functioning family, headed by the stern disciplinarian Mr. Hasselbond (Niklas Groundstroem). He lives with his wife (Amanda Ooms), their son, Gustaf (Patrik Kumpulainen), and little daughter (Ping Mon Wallen) on an otherwise uninhabited island where Hasselbond mans the lighthouse.

Kar arrives on the island one day with the news he’ll be the new lighthouse assistant, an arrangement that doesn’t sit well with the controlling Hasselbond, who says Karl’s too young and the position should in the future go to Gustaf. But Karl’s an insistent fellow and immediately starts to make himself useful. Clearly, the work’s preferable to going back to the orphanage he came from.

Being the same age, Gustaf and Karl quickly bond, and the film beautifully suggests how the two are complimentary yet so different. Karl’s much better with doing the kids homework, given by Gustaf’s old man, but it’s Gustaf who can take a boat out alone and use a sextant to read their position; Karl can’t even swim. The costumes of Riita Peteri delicately suggest how they boys differ but it’s equally written on their faces, with Karl’s buzz cut, squinting eyes and angular features giving him a harsh appearance, while Gustaf’s rounder face and longer blond locks suggest he’s led a more sheltered life and is still closer to childhood (indeed, he’s never been off the island).

But Gustaf’s life’s hardly been an idyll, as his father runs his family as if it were four-people army regiment, complete with countless rules and corporal punishment. Karl tries to blend in and is so good at it, he finally manages to obtain the until-then closed room of Elof, the Hasselbond’s eldest son, who was his father’s assistant but who drowned several years earlier. This sets off a predictable sequence of events in which the father comes to prefer Karl to his own son, though the screenplay’s clever enough to have another ace up its sleeve: Karl and Gustaf will have to bury the hatchet if they are ever to overcome the increasingly unhinged tyranny of the lighthouse master.

What impresses most about The Disciple is how what’s happening in the family is slowly spiraling out of control but that Bengts, the screenwriters and the actors remain restrained even in their excesses; it remains a hard-hitting drama until the end and even Peter Hagerstrand's forbidding and severe score, though violin-driven, refuses to become melodramatic.

The mesmerizing sight of the burning of the family piano is a shockingly decadent visual in a film otherwise filled with a modest but precise evocation of the period. Interestingly, word of events foreshadowing WWII, about to break out on the continent, never even reach the secluded island, giving the story an even more timeless feel. 

Production companies: Langfilm Productions Finland Oy, YLE, SVT
Cast: Erik Lonngren, Patrik Kumpulainen, Niklas Groundstroem, Amanda Ooms, Ping Mon Wallen  
Director: Ulrika Bengts
Screenwriters: Jimmy Karlsson, Roland Fauser
Producer: Mats Langbacka
Director of photography: Robert Nordstrom
Production designer: Katarina Lume
Music: Peter Hagerstrand
Costume designer: Riita Peteri
Editor: Tuomo Leino
Sales: Langfilm Productions
No rating, 93 minutes.