Ponderous and heavy with its own importance, Simon And The Oaks is the kind of film that’s made for awards—it nabbed 13 nominations in Sweden’s equivalent of the Oscars last year. Adapted from a 1985 novel by Marianne Fredriksson and directed by Lisa Ohlin, the film spans the years during and after World War II, as two boys grow up in an idyllic setting during a dark era in history, and their families become entangled in ways both business and personal. With beautiful period trappings and picturesque backdrops, the film doesn’t skimp on visual details, though the resulting product is inert. The characters rarely seem like more than types as they navigate through the war and look toward the future.
The eponymous protagonist, played by Jonatan S. Wächter as a child and Bill Skarsgård (Stellan Skarsgård’s son) as a young man, grows up in the care of working-class couple Helen Sjöholm and Stefan Gödicke. They love him, but Gödicke is frequently frustrated with the fact that the boy has no interest in roughhousing with friends. Instead, he prefers to spend time reading in a perch built in his favorite tree. At school, Wächter befriends a Jewish boy whose wealthy family moved from Germany to Sweden, where they’re warily keeping track of the war’s development; his mother (Lena Nylén) is afraid to leave the house, while his father (Jan Josef Liefers) is more circumspect and hopeful about life after the conflict.
The group forms a makeshift larger family as time goes on, though it has its class tensions, secrets, and the hint of a love triangle. But all these details are stuffed into a film that seems determined to accommodate as much of its source material as possible, with little regard for the larger picture. Threads like the hint of magic tied to the tree in the opening scenes are dropped for most of the film, while other characters appear for storylines that seem cut short or unnecessary. If there’s an arc, it’s a coming-of-age story, but for a character whom the audience is barely allowed to know, outside of his enjoyment of classical music and slight pissiness around the couple who raised him. The fragments, while pretty, don’t assemble into any kind of whole.