- The Washington Times - Saturday, October 13, 2001

"Under the Sun," exclusively at Visions Cinema, is this weekend's quality attraction. This evocative and appealing pastoral romance is set in Sweden during the 1950s and derived from an English source of a generation earlier, an H.E. Bates short story titled "The Little Farm." It was one of the finalists in the Academy Awards for best foreign-language film. "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" was the prohibitive favorite, but a vote for "Under the Sun" would have been perfectly respectable.
The director, Colin Nutley, is an Englishman whose professional career took a turn for the Swedish after he made a television series about a Swedish protagonist in the late 1980s. He has been a full-time transplant for the past decade and enjoyed a substantial hit with a bucolic sex farce, "House of Angels," a showcase for leading lady Helena Bergstrom, also Mrs. Nutley.
She returns in "Under the Sun," again cast as a smoldering exile from the city who seeks an incongruous rural haven, answering the desperate advertisement of a lonely, hulking, illiterate and sexually inexperienced farmer played by Rolf Lassgard.
Mr. Lassgard is a formidable acting instrument and sentimental presence. No one on the English-speaking screen combines a comparable bulk with such nuanced command of yearning and frustration. Mr. Lassgard looks as strong as an ox but displays enviable delicacy when observed in moments of emotional intimacy.
Mr. Lassgard's lonely guy, Olof, has inherited the property of his widowed mother, who died 10 years earlier. Not completely solitary, he sings with a church choir and enjoys the company of a hired man, Johan Widerberg as a loquacious and smug young rascal named Erik.
Erik boasts of world travel and a dubious familiarity with celebrities. While providing a callow contrast in character and the voice of a younger generation, Erik also is deployed very wittily as a time capsule. He drives around in a Ford Fairlane and sports an overripe thatch of red hair, carefully arranged into a ducktail in back with a pompadour rampant in front. Erik also has been able to exploit Olof's generosity and timidity in ways that begin to change once a woman enters the picture.
At its best, the movie projects infectious good will. Mr. Nutley's flair for unadorned human-interest interplay is revealed initially in the scenes in which Olof places a classified ad for a housekeeper with a local newspaper, entrusting his request to a helpful receptionist played by Gunilla Roor. The customer's tongue-tied embarrassment is finessed sweetly by the employee's consideration and efficiency. Already Olof is throwing himself on the mercy of a woman sufficiently up-to-date to know how things work and sufficiently kind to render assistance without enlarging his sense of humiliation.
The outline of the emerging love story is so familiar that Mr. Nutley makes the mistake of neglecting to fill it out adequately from the woman's perspective. An improbable treasure comes to town to answer the ad: Miss Bergstrom as a stylish, seductive runaway named Ellen, done up in an outfit that might have been inspired by Grace Kelly in "Rear Window." Obviously, she must have a reason for wanting to seek refuge in the country. Incredibly, Mr. Nutley never gets around to clarifying the story behind her flight.
Ellen's willingness to take the job and her subsequent willingness to help liberate Olof from his lovelorn condition bring Olof a volcanic and gratifying happiness. Mr. Lassgard and Miss Bergstrom share some remarkable love scenes, especially interludes in which tentative kisses acquire an uncommon and oddly touching suspense because you're not sure Olof can handle the intensity of it all.
Mr. Lassgard is masterful at emphasizing how Olof's rumbling voice doesn't quite work right from the moment he picks up Ellen at the train station and shows her around the farm. He's so choked for breath in her presence that every sentence he completes seems a gigantic triumph of willpower.
There is, of course, an inescapable comic aspect to this tenderhearted spectacle of a virginal mountain of a man being initiated gently by a worldly consort whose past must be on the shady or damaged side. Nevertheless, it makes you very happy to see Olof and Ellen confirm an overwhelming need for each other and grow exceptionally comfortable as a couple. Olof enters as a nincompoop, but Mr. Lassgard's impact is such that you rejoice in the hero's belated awakening as lover and refuge.
The actors are so appealing as a mismatch made in heaven that your reservations are confined largely to glaring oversights: the obligatory scenes Mr. Nutley seems to neglect and the opportunities for further intimacy and devotion that he fails to exploit. The movie is weakened when he seems to run out of situations and starts to disconnect from the lovers. What he creates remains too vivid and satisfying to be spoiled: an urgent rooting interest in the future happiness of Ellen and Olof.

* * *
TITLE: "Under the Sun"
No MPAA rating (adult subject matter, with occasional profanity and sexual candor; an interlude of simulated intercourse with fleeting nudity; an oblique documentary view of equine intercourse)
CREDITS: Directed by Colin Nutley. Screenplay by Mr. Nutley, Johanna Hald and David Neal, based on the short story "The Little Farm" by H.E. Bates. Music by Paddy Moloney. In Swedish with English subtitles.

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