Lovely to look at but too slow and deliberate to get lost in, Jan Troell's Everlasting Moments is a tribute to still photography filtered through a portrait of working-class life wracked by war and want in early-20th-century Sweden. Written by Niklas Rådström from a story shaped by Troell and his wife, Agneta, about her ancestor Maria Larsson, a mother of seven who won a camera in a lottery and used it both to record and survive her harsh life, the movie is quietly absorbing for an hour, but never quite solves the problem of whether its subject is worth two.
For all its tumultuous backdrop of World War I and the rise of anarcho-socialism, Everlasting Moments plays out on a much narrower canvas than Troell's 1996 masterpiece, Hamsun, which gave us a hugely transcendent figure to chew on in Knut Hamsun, the genius who wrote the acclaimed novel Hunger and became first a jewel in Norway's literary crown, then its national shame when he threw in his lot with the Nazis. Where Hamsun probed the power of art (and a very ambitious wife) to corrupt the soul, Everlasting Moments stakes a claim for the power of craft to sustain and elevate a spirit ground down by poverty and overwork. In other words, it's prettier, but far less exciting.
Framed and shot like a Rembrandt, Everlasting Moments fastens tightly on the cramped apartment in which the family ekes out a living made ever more precarious by events it can't control. Troell works on the visual clichés of period drama, muting the sepia into dreary brown, then warming to a golden aura of quiet ecstasy as, armed with her camera, Maria discovers beauty in the house cat, a dancing butterfly, and, as she gains confidence, in a neighbor's dead child, striking workers on the march, and a girl with Down syndrome. Her commemoration of the common joys and losses of the poor is a lovely thing, and watching it, we witness creativity not as bursts of genius but as artisanal work that soaks up all the maker's attention, shutting out the rest of her dour life.
What's missing from Everlasting Moments is a sense of significance. We never learn whether Maria's photos were ever seen by anyone beyond her family and friends. This wouldn't matter much if Troell were able to make more of his heroine than the regulation unhappy wife of a hardworking but oversexed lush (the excellent Mikael Persbrandt) who lumbers her with seven children he adores when sober but hits when drunk, and steps out with pretty women while she scrubs floors. However capably portrayed by Maria Heiskanen, there's more than a whiff of Ma Joad about Maria. Viewed through the narration of her eldest daughter, Maja, whose conversations with Troell's wife inspired the film, she seems at the outset a mouse of a woman. She achieves resilience and some measure of control through her work, and Troell implies a chaste love story of sorts with the camera-shop owner (Jesper Christensen) who teaches Maria her craft. The movie passes off this vaporous man as a sensitive soul mate whose timid love she returns in kind. Maja even ventures the late-20th-century feminist question of why her mother didn't leave her husband once she started making money taking family portraits in the neighborhood. Few women left their spouses in that time or place, and the movie slyly, perhaps unwittingly, offers its own mischievous clue — that Maria may have been durably caught up in her spouse's exuberant virility, and that in his way this great ox provided her with as many everlasting moments as did her camera.