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At the beginning of the 20th century in Sweden, a time of social change, unrest, war and poverty, a young working class woman, Maria Larsson (Maria Heiskanen) and her fiancé Sigfrid (Mikael Persbrand), win a camera in a lottery. They get married and the camera is put away and forgotten, until under the pressure of poverty, Maria - now a mother of four - retrieves it. She goes to sell it but the kindly camera shop owner, Sebastian Pedersen (Jesper Christensen) encourages her to keep it - and use it, which she begins to do, under his instructions and in secret. But, despite her natural flair for photography, it's soon put away again, until once more, on the eve of war, an opportunity arises. Sigfrid's drinking and infidelity causes a rift, despite a fifth baby on the way, and after one incident he ends up in jail. But when he's released he builds Maria a darkroom and he starts a small business, their life finally happy and stable - at least for a while.
Review by Andrew L. Urban:
It feels like a labour of love, this film, a biography of a woman (and her family) over a dozen or so years from 1907 in Sweden. Through poverty, children and her husband's drink-driven abuse, Maria Larsson (Maria Heiskanen) not only survives but discovers an inner self she never knew existed, all by accident - and a little help from a kind man at the camera shop. The vagaries of fate are well observed in this carefully detailed biography, as Jan Troell adapts Maja Öman's memoirs for the screen.
Shot mostly in the colours of nostalgia, the period is beautifully evoked, meaning it feels authentic, if it isn't always beautiful as a time to live, especially if you're poor. Maria Heiskanen is wonderfully effective as the shy woman who discovers this 'other' her, a natural at capturing images through the lens. Even when she has to put the camera away again, we imagine she is sustained through her many trials and tribulations by the inner peace of having found that joy.
Mikael Persbrand has a difficult role as Sigfrid, a bulk of man whose heart is in the right place, or would be if it wasn't attached to the bottle. He is brutish at times and insensitive, unfaithful and unreliable - yet proud and caring and decent. It's a complex mix, and it is a challenge for us to stay sympathetic to him, even by the time he acquires some sort of self control.
Impressive, too, is Jesper Christensen as the gentleman photographer whose kindness starts Maria on the path to discovery. We recognise his feelings for her, and the fact he chooses to keep them in check not only contrasts with Siggie but alerts us to his set of moral values, which are in sync with his actions.
The story has not been pared down, so there is less focus on a throughline and more on exposition about the often hard life this family leads. I find this is a little less satisfying in that there is only the hint of Maria's fulfilment through her photography - which is after all the central engine of the story. The film covers a lot of ground, and sometimes it feels as though it's lost direction, but I recognise it is sincere and a keenly observed insight into a singular life through several aspects of early 20th century history.
What's missing is that sensation of taking flight on the wings of her self discovery, for which our spirit yearns.