Saturday, August 25, 2012

WFF Montreal ’12: Where Once We Walked

Finland is a small country, with some big history.  During WWII, they forcibly ejected both the Soviets and the National Socialists from their territory, only give birth to the term Finlandization in the post-war years.  An interconnected circle of friends and rivals will witness the tumultuous decades leading up to the Winter War in Peter Lindholm’s Where Once We Walked (trailer here), which screens as part of the 2012 World Film Festival of Montreal.

The Lilliehjelms have money.  The Kajanders have not—and they will never let the Lilliehjelms forget it.  Eventually red diaper baby Allu Kajander will embark on an ambiguously passionate relationship with Lucie Lilliehjelm, the rebellious daughter of the imperious patriarch who once summarily dismissed his mother.  However, in the years of the Russian Revolutions and the Finnish Civil War, Ms. Lucie has several suitors more befitting her class, even including her brother Cedi’s morose best friend Eric “Eccu” Winding.

Always a bit of an outsider, Winding willing enlists with the White faction after witnessing the destruction wrought by the empowered Reds.  Yet, it is the score-settling he soon watches first-hand after the White victory that sends him into a psychological tailspin.  While his pained conscience poisons his friendship with Cedi, his continuing attraction to his flapper sister (and their periodic assignations) undermines his marriage.  Of course, all Finns will have much more pressing concerns arriving from the east in 1939.

Edited from a six part Finnish mini-series (which in turn adapted Kjell Westö’s door-stopper novel), the feature-length WOWW (handled internationally by The Yellow Affair) dispenses with entire narrative tributaries for the sake of compactness.  As a result, some periods, like the Red interregnum, are given short shrift, whereas the White purges become the film version’s dramatic hinge.  Perhaps most disappointingly for admirers of Finland, the movie version of WOWW practically concludes just as the Winter War (the country’s darkest yet arguably finest hour) begins.  In fact, it might as well end with “to be continued” spelled out in ten feet tall letters.

WOWW is not even remotely in Doctor Zhivago’s league, but it is intriguing to see roughly the same period of history from the Finnish perspective.  The weather is certainly similar.  In fact, it is pretty cinematic to see resolute Finns cross-country skiing off to join the White resistance.  WOWW is also a nicely crafted period production, but still there are times when it looks very TV in a TV kind of way.  (The opening credit sequence showing leaves falling into a river really needed sprucing up.)  The racially integrated American jazz band is also something of an anachronism for 1928, but to be fair, if you are assembling a New Orleans style hot jazz band in Finland, you probably have to take who you can get.

Though not exactly a classic beauty, Jessica Grabowsky plays sister Lilliehjelm with flirtatious verve.  Stiff and dour in comparison, Jakob Öhrman and Oskar Pöysti at least prove they can either brood or seethe on cue, as lover Winding and Brother Cedi, respectively.  Charles Salter also has a nifty near cameo as bandleader Robert W. “Jonesy” Jones, leading viewers to hope and suspect there is more of him either to come or available for Finish television viewing.

WOWW covers some fascinating history while treating viewers to some lovely sets and costumes.  It just feels so incomplete and unbalanced, though.  Nonetheless, Montreal residents and visitors interested in these oft overlooked historical episodes may not have a lot of other opportunities to see early Twentieth Century Finnish history dramatized on-screen and might therefore consider catching the imperfect Where Once We Walked anyway when it screens this coming Wednesday (8/28) and Saturday (9/1) during this year’s World Film Festival up north.