'Stockholm My Love': Film Review | London Film Festival 2016

Richard Ryan
A rambling city symphony with some sublime moments.

Singer Neneh Cherry makes her acting debut in the latest experimental essay film from 'I Am Belfast' director Mark Cousins.

No London Film Festival would be complete without its obligatory premiere by prolific British experimental director Mark Cousins, which is now something of an annual fixture. Stockholm My Love is a lightly fictionalized docudrama about the Swedish capital, its citizens, its music and its urban fabric. In style and mood, this freewheeling essay film feels like a loose sequel to last year's I Am Belfast, one of Cousins' most personal and artistically satisfying works. Both feature female narrators and striking imagery courtesy of Christopher Doyle, the Australian-born cinematographer best known for his work with Wong Kar Wai.

Like most Cousins films, this U.K.-Sweden co-production is an idiosyncratic, highly subjective and frequently self-indulgent affair. But the director's track record and quirky casting of singer Neneh Cherry should ensure a healthy festival life and specialist distributor interest. The British Film Institute has picked up domestic theatrical and home entertainment rights, with a release planned for next June.

The Swedish-born Cherry, who enjoyed substantial pop success across much of Europe during the late 1980s and early 1990s, makes her acting debut in the lead role, though her largely passive performance is not really acted in the traditional sense. She plays Alva, an architect struggling under a heavy cloud of post-traumatic depression, which she gradually explains in voiceover during a long solo walk through Stockholm.

Alva's mournful inner monologue is initially in English and addressed to her late father, an African immigrant to Sweden, much like Cherry's real dad. Midway through she switches to Swedish to commune with another dead man, 79-year-old Gunnar, who was killed in a freak road accident for which she feels crushing guilt. Finally she stops vocalizing altogether and her words become written captions onscreen, gnomic ruminations on happiness, weather, politics, history and architecture. The film is ultimately a love letter to Stockholm, which Cousins presents as a city of solace and refuge.

Cherry's onscreen persona is clearly ventriloquizing Cousins, just as Helena Bereen did in I Am Belfast, which means Stockholm My Love suffers from some of the same recurring structural flaws as the director's past work. As a screenwriter, he seems to lack a discerning edit function, so his occasionally pithy insights bob along in a random stream of banal observations and whimsical tangents. As ever with Cousins, we are left with the nagging suspicion that his fragmentary, diffuse methods are cover for a dearth of deep or original thoughts.

On the other hand, Stockholm My Love scores highly in its visual and musical elements. Doyle and Cousins capture some ravishing images of Cherry, restlessly tweaking their focus and brightness levels so that the singer's face becomes a silhouette, a fuzzy blur, a beatific icon under shimmering rainfall and so on. They also shoot some handsome footage of Stockholm itself, all modernist concrete bunkers and utopian housing protects, watery reflections and tree-lined parks. Intense zooming close-ups of snails, insects and flowers evoke some of the otherworldly beauty of Peter Greenaway's early films.

Cherry also performs a handful of new songs throughout the film, one on a Stockholm subway train. Co-written by her husband and longtime collaborator Cameron McVey, the music is an agreeable blend of jazzy electronica while the lyrics, penned by Cousins, mirror her character's emotional journey. Some jaunty folk-pop tracks by Benny Andersson of ABBA and stirring orchestral pieces by 19th century composer Franz Berwald deepen the emphatically Swedish flavor, reinforcing the sense that Stockholm My Love is more audio-visual symphony than drama or documentary. Cousins' work is often more admirable for its ambition than its artistry, but at his best he achieves a kind of sublime poetry.

Venue: London Film Festival
Production company: Bofa Productions
Cast: Neneh Cherry
Director: Mark Cousins
Screenwriters: Mark Cousins, Anita Oxburgh
Producers: Anita Oxburgh, Mary Bell, Adam Dawtrey
Cinematographers: Christopher Doyle, Mary Cousins
Editor: Timo Langer
Music: Neneh Cherry, Ben Page, Cameron McVey, Mark Cousins, Benny Andersson

Not rated, 88 minutes