vt Echoes from the Dead
Sweden / 98 minutes / color / Sveriges Television, Nouvago, 5ta Avenida, Svenska Filminsitutet, Nordisk, Yellow Bird, Fundament Dir: Daniel Alfredson Pr: Søren Stærmose, Lars Pettersson Scr: Daniel Alfredson, Birgitta Bongenhielm Story: Skumtimmen (2007; vt Echoes from the Dead) by Johan Theorin Cine: Fredrik Bäckar Cast: Lena Endre, Tord Peterson, Thomas W. Gabrielsson, Iggy Malmborg, Felix Engström, Martin Alfredson Jofs, Johan Sundberg, Eva Fritjofson, Maria af Malmborg Linnman, Magnus Roosman, Stefan Gödicke, Jan Tiselius, Jessica Liedberg, Ted Åström, Håkon Svenson, Philomène Grandin, Lise Edman, Björn Andersson, Karl-Fredrik Nilsson, Marko Ivkovich, Max Felder, Godehard Giese.
A couple of weeks ago I reread the 2007 Johan Theorin novel upon which this movie is based, Echoes from the Dead (in its English translation by Marlaine Delargy). It’s unusual these days for me to reread books, especially ones that I read the first time only five years ago. What happened was that, having recently read and absolutely adored the second novel in Theorin’s “Öland” trilogy, The Darkest Room, I determined to read the first, so set up a library order for it a few months hence. When it arrived I plunged into it without thinking, only to realize within a few pages that, of course, I’d read it before. Also, though, I recalled how much I’d enjoyed it, so for once I opted to keep on reading.
It was a good decision. I enjoyed it even more the second time.
Anyway, here’s the bulk of what I wrote on Goodreads about the book back in July 2014:
A still-grieving mother, Julia, comes home to a remote Swedish island, Öland, in hopes of finding out what happened there twenty years ago to her little son, Jens, who disappeared in the fog one day and was never found. Her rickety old father, Gerlof, the stubbornest resident in the old folks’ home where he now lives, has been sent a sandal that looks like one of the pair Jens was wearing the day he vanished. After one of Gerlof’s equally antiquated friends is murdered, Gerlof and his friends redouble their efforts to find out what went on—and what’s still going on. Julia, initially reluctant, starts to become diligent in the quest as well, aided by a growing affection for local cop Lennart. Everything seems to center on the fate of Nils Kant, a spoilt child of privilege who, at the end of the war, murdered two German soldiers and a policeman, thereafter fleeing to South America, where he died. Or did he?
The latter stages of this book—including a denouement that completely bowled me over—are riveting stuff, and there’s some wonderfully suspenseful material earlier on, too. I also liked very much the integration of past events with present ones; there’s a real sense of story in the text. . . . [D]efinitely worth reading.
That outline of the book’s setup is pretty close to the movie’s setup too. However, the movie’s plot as a whole has been somewhat simplified—much as you’d expect in a screen adaptation. For most of the running time the simplification doesn’t obtrude except insofar as a few plot threads seem to start promisingly and then abruptly peter out; for example, in the novel there’s an intriguing red herring concerning the possible guilt of a minor character, Anders Hagman (played by Nilsson in the movie), but in the movie this is treated so perfunctorily as to make one wonder why it was included at all.
Similarly, the death of Gerlof’s old buddy and fellow amateur detective, Ernst Adolfsson (Tiselius), happens so early on in the proceedings and is so soon apparently forgotten about that it seems an event of little importance. A stonemason and sculptor, he’s found having fallen into a quarry with one of his heavier artworks on top of him. In the book great play is made of the obvious question—did he fall or was he pushed, or was he murdered with a blunt instrument and then a misleading tableau created?—and the truth of the matter is part of the tale’s denouement. In the movie, not only do we never learn the truth but the question is never posed.
Where the movie’s simplification really hurts the tale is, however, in the final reel. In the novel a Bad Hat attempts the murder of one of our main protagonists by stranding that character in foul weather in the depths of the island of Öland’s alvar region. (According to Wikipedia, an alvar is “a biological environment based on a limestone plain with thin or no soil and, as a result, sparse grassland vegetation.”)
That’s approximately what happens in the movie, too, yet Theorin’s epic climax—I don’t have the book in front of me, but I’m guessing the relevant section runs to fifty or sixty pages of ever-increasing tension—is reduced to a matter of three or four minutes. Moreover, it’s a different Bad Hat who’s attempting this crime, thereby cutting the complexity of the denouement and in fact nullifying the final twist I mentioned in my Goodreads notes.
Viewing the movie as a separate entity, however, rather than as an offshoot of the novel, it’s inarguably a very fine piece of work. Fredrik Bäckar’s cinematography is quite stunning, in terms not only of its observation of landscapes natural and artificial but also of its intimate perception of the characters and the relationships between them. Thomas Dybdahl’s soundtrack isn’t intrusive, but it complements the onscreen action with a perfect sensitivity and, often, some not inconsiderable beauty. Moreover, the piecemeal exposition of what really happened twenty and forty-five years ago is if anything even better handled in the movie than it is in the novel.
The heart of the movie is the relationship between the bereaved mother, Julia Davidsson (Endre), and her often cantankerous, often exasperating elderly father, Gerlof (Peterson). In the twenty years since Jens (Sundberg) disappeared one foggy night on Öland, Julia has persuaded herself that the guilt lies at the feet of Gerlof, who was supposed to babysit the boy but left him with his dementia-afflicted grandmother, Gerlof’s wife, in order to go do some boatwork.
Gerlof knows she blames him, as indeed he blames himself, yet he loves her too much ever to point out the truth she’s so studiously ignoring: that he wasn’t the only supposedly responsible adult who chose not to take care of Jens on that fateful afternoon.
So, like the novel, the movie isn’t just about the solution to the mystery of what happened to Jens: it’s also a tale about Julia and Gerlof rediscovering how to accept each other, and indeed their reliance upon each other. In this respect, the movie works wonderfully well.
A large part of that success is because of the chemistry between Endre and Peterson. The movie is marked by the extraordinarily high level of the performances, by leading and supporting cast alike, yet Endre and Peterson, separately and together, are just astonishing.
The movie could easily have presented Julia in the Hollywood fashion as that rare 45-year-old who looks to be in her mid-twenties (and has the underwear to match). But the Julia of Skumtimmen looks if anything older than her age, while at the same time projecting an electric femininity; it’s no wonder at all that the conventionally more eye-catching character Lennart Henriksson (Gabrielsson) should fall head-over-heels for her, even though he knows it’s stupid for him to give in to the impulse. (As an aside, surely it can be only in Scandinavia—or in any house with me in it—that the line “I have a lovely turbot in the fridge” seems seductive! “It sounds irresistible,” says Julia in response.)
That the movie should feature a romance between two people of middle years without the slightest hint of condescension or patronization is refreshing but, as I said, the heart of the movie concerns the relationship between Julia and Gerlof. We sympathize with Julia every time she rolls her eyes at whatever latest piece of obduracy her dad has come up with. The same goes for Gerlof every time he gives a resigned curl of the lip in response to some new foolishness of his daughter’s. I found myself growing immensely fond of the pair of them . . . and both Endre and especially Peterson have rocketed toward the top of my mental list of favorite actors.
Part of the credit for the near-uniformly high level of the performances must obviously go to casting director Jeanette Klintberg. How skillful is the casting? Well, until I read the closing credits, I was convinced that the effect of the twenty-year age gap between the younger Nils Kant (Jofs) and his older counterpart (Engström) and between the younger Lennart (Malmborg) and the older (Gabrielsson) was something that had been achieved by makeup. But no: Klintberg had managed to find two pairs of actors who looked—and sounded—convincingly like the older and younger versions of the two individuals.
Among the minor roles, I should single out Magnus Roosman as Landsfiskalen (District Inspector) Henriksson, the cop who’s hunting down Nils Kant for the murder on the alvar of two fugitive German soldiers (Felder and Giese), and whom Nils murders on a train before making a bolt for the Caribbean, and Stefan Gödicke as Arvid Bengtsson, a drunken Swede whom Nils cultivates and then murders so as to establish for himself a fresh identity.
Rather than read the book first—as I did, twice!—and then watch the movie, I’d recommend watching the movie first and then, for the undoubtedly richer experience, reading the novel. This isn’t to imply the movie is poor—it isn’t, and it’s illuminated by its magnificent production qualities and those splendid performances—but simply to recognize that the movie lacks the satisfying complexities and conceptual depths, not to mention the carefully measured pace, of its source.