‘Gentlemen’: Toronto Review

Gentleman TIFF Still - H 2014
Toronto International Film Festival

Gentleman TIFF Still - H 2014

This dense period epic is so overstuffed with plot viewers may find their attention more engaged by the costumes and wallpaper by the end

Cult Swedish novelist Klas Ostergren filets his own novel for this lavish adaptation, directed by Mikael Marimain (‘Call Girl’) and starring David Dencik

Adapted by the Klas Ostergren from his own same-titled 1980 cult novel, Swedish period-drama Gentlemen,about radical artists freewheeling around 70s Europe, is a curate’s egg. One the one hand, it’s relentlessly impressive for its windmill-tilting ambition and lush production values, but it’s also an exercise in frustration. The looping, curlicued story only starts to make some kind of coherent sense somewhere around the two-hour mark. As a result, this version, actually half of a TV series called Gentlemen & Gangsters comprising four 90-minute parts thatalso covers Ostergren’s sequel novel, ultimately feels both enticing and unsatisfying, and doesn’t really work as a standalone. More festival play ought to follow after its Toronto premiere.

Opening around 1978 in Stockholm, the first scenes introduce the main dramatis personae through the eyes of narrator Klas (David Fukamachi Regnfors), a pretty if passive young man with literary ambitions. He is befriended by dashing Henry Morgan (David Dencik, best known outside of Sweden for Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy), a charismatic polymath who’s a boxer and a jazz pianist among many other things that only a character in novel would do all at once. Henry invites Klas to move in with him into Henry’s massive, family-owned apartment where they spend their nights carousing with Henry’s circle of eccentric friends, and their days – when not boxing, playing piano or writing - searching for buried treasure in a system of caverns beneath the building. Like you do.

Although he’s supposed to be finishing another commission for a publisher, Klas starts writing up a history of Henry’s exploits that form the basis of the film’s many flashbacks. It transpires that Henry has been having a longstanding affair with bewitching beauty Maud (Ruth Vega Fernandez), who is also the mistress of powerful local magnate Wilhelm Sterner (Boman Oscarsson). At one point several years ago, things went sour with Maud and Henry drifted around Europe, spending time especially in Paris playing in jazz clubs. (The music and performance scenes are some of the film’s highlights.)

Later, Henry’s poet brother Leo (Sverrir Gudnason), a radical poet-rock-star who’s been banged up in a mental asylum for years, shows up at the apartment and the plot zigzags to explain his backstory. It turns out he was involved in a journalistic investigation into the mysterious disappearance of a factory worker-father of a friend back during WWII which involved Sterner, Nazi munitions, and conspiracies, necessitating a whole new avalanche of characters and flashbacks within flashbacks.

It all starts to make some kind of sense eventually, and Ostergren and director Mikael Marcimain (Call Girl)  take pains to plant mentions of elements and characters in the beginning that pay off later on, but viewers unfamiliar with the source book will have to concentrate hard to keep up. It’s not hard to see on the evidence of the film alone why the book has been likened to the works of Thomas Pynchon, while the bohemian milieu here also evokes Roberto Bolano’s The Savage Detective (the Pynchonian cult read of the current generation). But there’s a reason why Pynchon and Bolano’s fiction, the upcoming Inherent Vice aside, hasn’t been adapted for film so far: this kind of sprawling, borderline-surrealist fiction works much better on the page.

On screen, it seems arch, mannered and sometimes far too complicated to be worth the bother. The material simply seems much too dense for a film. Advance word from the sales agent has it that “half of the footage and scenes in the TV series will be unique and will not appear in the feature,” which may be a good thing.

That said, Gentlemen is not without its pleasures or moments of delight. Alleged to have cost 95m Swedish kroner (about $13m US) to make, that budget is visible throughout in the lavish production design, a smorgasbord of vintage cars, period-accurate costumes adorning the major players and scads of background artists alike, and scrupulously researched props. Indeed, if viewers’ attention wanders from the antics of the plot, there’s always the matchbooks and the on wallpaper to look at.

Production company: A B-reel production.

Cast: David Dencik, David Fukamachi Regnfors, Ruth Vega Fernandez, Sverrir Gudnason, Boman Oscarsson, Pernilla August

Director: Mikael Marcimain

Screenwriter: Klas Ostergren, based on his own novel

Producers: Mattias Nohrborg, Fredrik Heinig, Johannes Ahlund

Director of photography: Jallo Faber

Production designer: Linda Janson

Costume designer: Cilla Rorby

Editor: Kristofer Nordin

Composer: Mattias Barjed

Sales: Wild Bunch


No rating, 141 minutes