Jan Troell’s Swedish period piece Everlasting Moments often feels like a moving version of a sepia-toned old photograph. The palette is muted and leans heavily on browns and tans; a prestige-pic tone of solemn, searching melancholy makes every moment feel like the kind of stiff and frowning pose common to old daguerreotypes. Only the attempts to find the joy as well as the sorrow of an average life keep the story from pure miserablism, and even then, the film sometimes reads like a Lifetime kitchen-sink drama, ported across the sea and a century back in time.
Maria Heiskanen stars as the put-upon wife of alcoholic laborer Mikael Persbrandt, the kind of hard-working, salt-of-the-earth brute who weeps through temperance meetings one day, then drunkenly assaults his wife or children the next. Denied solace or aid by her remaining family, Heiskanen grimly settles down to endure whatever Persbrandt dishes out and to care for their four (and soon more) children. She finds her comfort in a camera her husband won in a lottery, and in the kind camera-store owner (Jesper Christensen) who encourages her considerable talents. Her oldest daughter (played by multiple girls as the story moves from 1907 through the following decade) narrates their lives as a herky-jerky collection of key childhood memories, the everlasting moments of the title. The anecdotes and incidents range from national to political to familial, but they’re largely consistent with what a precocious, observant child might observe, remember, and interpret or guess at later in life.
One thing remains most consistent with the daughter’s perspective: Her mother is a richly complicated character, beloved but sometimes distant, and cautious about revealing her inner life, though her photography betrays the feelings behind the grimly accepting mask. Heiskanen plays her layers beautifully, alternately revealing a talented artist stymied by poverty and marital problems, and a woman fiercely devoted to family first. And Troell shoots her just as beautifully, framing the complexities of her life with a respect for detail and warm nuance that elevates the too-familiar material. Like any old photograph of strangers, Everlasting Moments begins as just a bunch of samey faces, but getting to know the people in the picture makes all the difference.