Audiences with weak constitutions would do well to heed an early shot in the Swedish historical drama Everlasting Moments as a warning sign.
It's 1907, and Maria Larsson (Maria Heiskanen) has yet again suffered disrespect and abuse from her drunken, loutish husband Sigge (Mikael Persbrandt). With a bruised face and five children in tow, Maria trudges down a darkened street, silhouetted against the snowy, dismal night. In those few seconds, director Jan Troell offers a glimpse of almost crushing despair and signals that Everlasting Moments won't shrink from downbeat content, as if it's a Scandinavian Angela's Ashes.
Last year, Everlasting Moments earned a Golden Globe nomination for Best Foreign Language film. It proves to be an impeccably well-observed film despite the rough going. The movie primarily takes place from the Larsson's youngest daughter's point of view. As the family grows, we see how the 19th century gives way to the 20th through electric lights, socialist agitation, World War I, and especially photography. Family legend has it that the couple married because Maria and Sigge won a camera in a lottery. During one of the family's endless economic slumps, Maria considers pawning the camera for cash. Through the influence of the kindly photo shop owner (Jesper Christensen), Maria discovers both an artistic and a financial aptitude for photography.
Heiskanen's deeply felt, self-effacing performance as a real woman goes for neither improbable glamour nor cheap sympathy. Nevertheless, Everlasting Moments' story seems to have a blind spot as it tracks the rise and fall of Maria's spirits. She's perpetually torn between her impulse to stay with her husband and her blossoming creative sensibility accompanied by feminist-style empowerment. For more than two hours, the film repeatedly shows Maria's aspirations inch up until Sigge knocks them down and she ends up back at square one, only saddled with more children.
Persbrandt plays Sigge with plenty of muscular vitality, and the youngest kids always squeal with delight when their drunken father breaks into sea shanties. It's hard to figure out, however, why Maria keeps investing time in the marriage, apart from her father's deathbed admonishment not to put asunder what God has joined together. Life provides plenty of examples of abandoned marriages and fresh opportunities, so Maria seems as much like a masochist as a martyr.
Everlasting Moments features subtly gorgeous cinematography and offers a primer in 100-year-old photography, but Maria's commitment to her brutish spouse is one area that could use more development.