Bil’s rating (out of 5): BBBB.
Original title: Pelle Erobreren
Denmark/Sweden, 1987. Per Holst Filmproduktion, Svensk Filmindustri, Odyssey Entertainment. Screenplay by Bille August, Per Olov Enquist, Bjarne Reuter, based on the novel by Martin Andersen Nexo. Cinematography by Jorgen Persson. Produced by Per Holst. Music by Stefan Nilsson. Production Design by Anna Asp. Costume Design by Kicki Ilander. Film Editing by Janus Billeskov Jansen. Academy Awards 1988. Cannes Film Festival 1988. Golden Globe Awards 1988.
Max von Sydow and son Pelle Hvenegaard (who, in a twist of fate that I’m sure was irresistible to the marketing department, was actually named after the book this epic drama is based on), show up on Danish shores after having left hardship behind in Tomelilla, Sweden. The only work that the poor and illiterate but optimistic man can get is working the stables of a landowner’s farm, which he immediately takes and which plunges him and his boy into the various dramas at the harshly run estate. Through the eyes of young Pelle we see the ways that life breaks his father down bit by bit, while elsewhere a maid has a romance with a wealthy man’s son, a worker has constant conflict with the brutal foreman that reaches a devastating conclusion, and life at the local schoolhouse is rife with mischievous boys who don’t take too well to foreigners. The spine of this sumptuous, involving drama is the gradual awakening to the complicated nature of life by this young boy, played with full energy that often reaches shrill degrees by young Hvenegaard and that is easily contrasted by von Sydow’s heartbreaking depth and sincerity. Director Bille August pays great tribute to his mentor Ingmar Bergman and brings out the details of the period, from the beauty of a summer picnic to the ugly realities of the exploitation of these workers, but don’t be surprised if the more than slight insistence on tragic outcomes feels, from time to time, contrived. The Best Intentions would do a much richer job of contrasting life’s woes with its joys.