The Last Sentence is set largely behind closed doors—in offices, bedrooms, and at dinner parties—and shot in low-contrast digital black-and-white, which has the delicate flatness of a pencil drawing. The effect is less intimate than airless, the back rooms of history cleared of smoke, must, and life.
The subject is Swedish newspaper editor Torgny Segerstedt (1876-1945), who spent the final decade of his career attacking the Nazis and criticizing the Swedish government for appeasing them. “Genius! Unassailable!” declares one character after Segerstedt (Danish actor Jesper Christensen) turns in a blank column in protest. The viewer has to take his word for it, because, despite all of its haranguing about the value of political speech, The Last Sentence never acknowledges the existence of the public. Instead, the newspaper’s readership appears to consist of a half-dozen historical figures, a few unseen hate-mail writers, and Segerstedt himself, who is often shown reading his columns aloud so that viewers don’t have to strain their eyes. At key points, a brass section blares disingenuously on the soundtrack.
Interspersed between these unconvincing testimonials to Segerstedt’s political integrity are sketches of his private life, focused mostly on his relationship with his Jewish mistress, Maja (Pernilla August). “Sketches” is the operative word here; Segerstedt never comes across as anything more than a collection of traits and political positions, and his relationship with Maja is colorless, blushing into life only in a single, brief scene where the two play around with a handgun while discussing suicide in the event of a German invasion. Scenes that show Segerstedt in moments of moral weakness seem sputtering rather than revealing, as though the movie were trying every trick in the historical-character-study handbook. A recurring device has Segerstedt encountering black-veiled ghosts of women from his past; by the third iteration, it just feels goofy.
That goofiness has its appeal. Veteran director Jan Troell (The Emigrants, Everlasting Moments) uses ’70s-style zooms as seasoning, adding a little extra pull to every shot where a character gets out of a chair or opens an oven. The continual wobbling of on-screen space, combined with some endearingly awkward attempts at humor (dog reaction shots abound), gives this tony biopic a smidgen of charm, though it doesn’t make it any less tedious.