SimonPosterTzivi reviews Simon and the Oaks

Lisa Ohlin’s new film Simon and the Oaks is about the choices we sometimes make when we are young, choices that we make without realizing they are choices, choices that turn out to determine the future.

In this case the fateful choice is made by a boy named “Simon” (Jonatan S. Wächter) on his very first day at a new school. Simon is the bookish child of a robust and physically powerfully man named “Erik” (Stefan Gödicke) who worries that others might call his son a wimp. So he forces boxing lessons on a reluctant boy who flees as soon as he can. But once at school, Simon sees students bullying another boy and bam! A boy who could never defend himself finds the inner strength to fight for another.

Grateful “Isak” (Karl Martin Eriksson) immediately becomes Simon’s constant companion. These boys come from families that are polar opposities: Simon’s family is rural, working class, and Protestant; Isak’s family is urban, upper middle class and Jewish. But while cultural differences sometimes create tension, there are no doctrinal religious barriers blocking empathy. Furthermore Erik is a committed Socialist and therefore fervently anti-Nazi, so Simon has no patience with the anti-Semitic chatter of wealthier classmates.

The story opens in the summer of 1939 when what will become World War II is already on the horizon, soon to become a daily nightmare. Isak’s father “Ruben” (Jan Josef Liefers) had fled Berlin early, taking sufficent resources to set himself up in Gothenburg, Sweden (where the bulk of the story takes place). Isak and his mother came later, already scared by their traumatic experiences under Nazi boots.

Forget that you know what will happen to most German Jews and what will not happen to most Swedish Jews. One of the strengths of Simon and the Oaks is its ability to capture the terror of the times for all those most impacted. Finally the war is over and a post-war economic boom begins in Sweden. But mutual interdependence during the war years has made these two families so close that their fates are forever intertwined.

Now adults, Simon (Bill Skarsgård) and Isak (Karl Linnertorp) pursue their chosen professions and various girls enter the mix. And always holding everyone together is Simon’s mother “Karin” (Helen Sjöholm) a seemingly ordinary woman with a ferocious will. Despite Erik’s reservations, Karin makes a place in her home for Isak, and so, although the boys are friends in the film’s first hour, in the second hour, they relate to each other more as brothers.

Simon and the Oaks is a sweeping historical epic filled with rich character detail and deeply inhabited performances. Although the person at the center is clearly Simon (first as a boy and then as a young man), all of the major characters have believable narrative arcs, and none are short-changed. Screenwriter Marnie Blok has distilled the essence of Marianne Fredriksson’s beloved source novel (very long and very dense) without turning anyone from three dimensions into two.

Many talented women also play small but significant supporting roles, including Isak’s mother, Simon’s aunt, and Ruben’s neice (an Auschwitz survivor). Each actress makes a contribtion that resonates.

With a budget of $7.5 million, Simon and the Oaks is one of the most expensive feature films ever produced in Sweden, and almost none of it has been wasted on explosions, chases or other tedious “special” effects. The cinematography is luminous with natural light and furtive shadows; the art direction, set direction, and costume design are precise and attentive; and the soundtrack is filled with luscious musical snippets (often from The Symphony Fantastique by Hector Berlioz) which actually play a critical role in the plot.

Simon and the Oaks received 13 nominations recently for Guldbagge Awards from the Swedish Film Institute (aka the “Swedish Oscars”) including Best Picture and Best Director, and I’m sure it deserved every one of them. It is the kind of “old fashioned” film rarely seen in American multiplexes these days, the kind of film I have always loved and always welcome. Brava, Lisa Ohlin!


Bill Skarsgård (left) as "Simon" visits a Jewish cemetery with "Ruben" (Jan Josef Liefers).
Bill Skarsgård (left) as “Simon” visits a Jewish cemetery with “Ruben” (Jan Josef Liefers).

Simon and the Oaks opens in Metro Chicago at the Landmark Century Center in Lincoln Park and the Landmark Renaissance Place in Highland Park on Oct 19.

Posted by JUF Online on 10/19/12.

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