The nuclear family breeds secrets, lies, resentment and anguish. The Jews have known that since Eve enticed Adam with a lunch snack. The entire book of Genesis is a catalog of such behaviors, and it could be argued that all Western literature has followed its example. It would be absurd to expect filmmakers to do otherwise.
“Simon and the Oaks,” a new Swedish film by Lisa Ohlin, adapted from the novel by Marianne Fredriksson and opening on Oct. 12, is a reminder of that simple fact. Set in Sweden in the years just before World War II through the early post-war period, “Simon” is a veritable catalog of secrets, lies, resentments and anguish, all of them intensified by the presence of two families whose fates are intertwined, and the terrors of being a Jew in exile during the rise and fall of the Nazis.
Simon (Jonatan S. Wächter as a boy, Bill Skarsgård as a young man) is the son of a good-hearted working-class couple, Karin (Helen Sjöholm) and Erik (Stefan Gödicke), but he seems ill-matched to his parents. He’s a dreamer, a compulsive reader, a boy who finds his greatest happiness sitting in an ancient oak tree that he says whispers to him. When his parents reluctantly send him to a private school, he becomes friends with Isak (Karl Martin Eriksson as a boy, Karl Linnertorp as a young man), the son of wealthy Jewish refugees.
Gradually the families’ lives become inextricably linked; Isak’s father Ruben (Jan Josef Liefers) takes Simon under his tutelage and feeds his love of literature and music, while Isak finds refuge from night terrors with roots in a horrific childhood encounter with SA troopers in Erik’s woodworking shop. As the boys get older and more secrets come tumbling out, they virtually switch places and families, much to the pain of Karin, whose love for Simon is nearly boundless.
For much of the first half of “Simon and the Oaks” the sheer forward motion of the story keeps one’s interest. Although the tropes at play are familiar ones — a little D. H. Lawrence class conflict, a hint of Stefan Zweig Mitteleuropa irony and Jewish neurosis — Ohlin and screenwriter Marnie Blok keep the wheels turning smoothly. But they signal a lot of the upcoming conflicts rather clumsily (a mysterious letter from Berlin, Ruben’s half-mad wife), foreshadowing not only the plot points to come but their increasingly clumsy development.
A large part of the film’s problem is its sheer, maddening inconsistency. Characters drop in and out of the narrative, seemingly at random. Despite the film’s title and ostensible focus on Simon and his inner world, point-of-view is frequently broken. The film stumbles in and out of moments of magical realism. (The worst of these are the reveries Simon enjoys when he hears classical music, a grotesquely “picturesque” series of montages reminiscent of old network TV signoffs.)
The inconsistencies betray the film’s roots in a beloved novel. Blok and Ohlin seem uncertain what to keep and what to discard for the film. At 122 minutes, they have kept too much; “Simon” needs to be either a 100-minute film with a few characters jettisoned (Simon’s sex life could easily be lost with no damage to the story or thematic concerns) or a mini-series that delineates everything. As for the Jewish issues, they are handled tastefully, but for all their seeming centrality, they are strangely irrelevant to the real story. After all, every family has its secrets and lies. n
“Simon and the Oaks,” directed by Lena Ohlin, opens on Oct. 12 at the Paris Theatre (4 W. 58th St.). For information, call (212) 688-3800, or go to www.theparistheatre.com.