Pferde stehlen / Out stealing horses

A remote Norwegian village near the Swedish border. Trond is returning after an absence of 42 years. The Millenium is coming up, but he’s more likely to spend New Years Eve reading Dickens than watching the fireworks. Since his wife died in a car crash a couple of years ago, he’s not been a great one for partying.

The familiar setting and a chance sighting of an old acquaintance gets him thinking of the Summer of 1948, when he was here with his father escaping the bustle of Oslo. Here you’re more likely to spend your time doing naked handstands in a rain shower or cutting down trees – there is an awful lot of wood chopping scenes in this film – than going out on the town.

Even when spectacular things happen – we’re thinking particularly of an accidental shooting – the pace is so languid that its treated as nothing spectacular. Things happen, people react with the minimal necessary emotions, then they get on with their lives. Trond develops a crush on his mate’s mother, and competes for her affections not just with her husband but also with his own father. But the film just lets us glance quickly at what’s happening then makes us do the heavy lifting about how it develops.

Its all based on a book, which is obvious at some stages. As well as the parallel narratives in 1999 and 1948, we also jump briefly to 1943, when Norway was occupied by the Nazis and Sweden was neutral, and, briefly, to 1956. This is the sort of device that allows a novel to breathe for air, but on screen breaks up the action and is more likely to disrupt the flow.

So, we have one scene where one of the characters behaves a little strangely and then we jump back a day to explain what’s bugging him. As said, I think that the structure of a novel allows this sort of manipulation of time and place. May films are often better suited to starting at the beginning and going on till they reach a suitable conclusion [yes I’m not unaware of the many films which successfully use flashbacks to build up dramatic tension. All I’m saying is that this isn’t one of them].

For all my reservations about the form, the Norwegian countryside is filmed beautifully. Alongside the countless shots of logs, we are shown nature in all its spectacular wonder. These Summer scenes from 1948 are counterposed to the ice-strewn landscapes experienced by the elder Trond in 1999, enhancing our sense of time and place.

And pretty much all these later scenes centre around Stellan Skarsgård. Its over two decades since his English-language breakout role in Breaking the Waves, and he has spent much of the intervening time as a jobbing Hollywood actor taking non-challenging (but presumably lucrative) roles. But he has really developed into a very distinguished actor, even if he’s a bit greyer than he used to be.

All in all, its an interesting film, even if its a bit too slow and a bit too long. But it does make you seriously consider getting a copy of the book. Is that a good or a bad thing?

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