The Last Sentence is a visually dazzling, emotionally restrained look at the outsider Swedish aristocracy during World Ward II. Sadly, its hindered by a slowed pace and an ultimate lack of conclusions.
Director Jan Troell, prolific in his native Sweden, has been making quiet, complex, deliberate and restrained movies for decades. Now 83, his films have begun to naturally express themes of aging and of family, a trend you’ll find in many auteurs who live that long. His last film released in America, 2008’s Everlasting Moments, was something of a critical darling, although unseen by many, including this critic. My first Troell movie is his latest, The Last Sentence, and I can see what the hype is all about. This film is sparklingly gorgeous. Each frame of silvered photography glistens with patience. Every performance is simultaneously stern and flip, creating a relaxed tone of objective bemusement. Troell possesses a sense of ease toward his craft that younger directors are too frantically ambitious to have acquired yet, and I appreciate the slowness.
I would be remiss, however, if I didn’t also express my frustration with Troell’s approach. The film’s protagonist, real-life Swedish journalist Torgny Segerstedt (an amazing Jesper Christiansen) has adopted a dangeorous position in his profession: He has constantly and vocally opposed the rise of Nazism in Germany, right from the git-go. In 1933, he started publishing anti-Nazi pieces in his newspaper, and didn’t stop until his death in 1945, before the end of the War. One would think that, dealing with such a bullheaded and morally forthright journalist, that Troell would depict him as either a rabble-rousing gadfly, or an untouchable steeltrap intellectual. But Segerstedt is seen as a distracted individual, one who doesn’t seem to have many strong convictions. Surely there’s an irony to his character – That a man so resolute on the page should be so ambivalent in his personal life – but that irony is eschewed for a vague sense Olympian detachment. As such, the entire film begins to feel meandering, detached, and even a little bit directionless. The film loses patience with politics, and spends a lot of time dealing with Segerstedt’s various female influences and needs to take quiet walks in the park.
There are at least a few tantalizing conversations about faith. Segerstedt was a professor of theology and of religious history who, in the face of Nazism, and through the years of personal frustration over his mistress, found his faith flagging in his twilight years. The mentions of religion, however, are maddeningly brief. I would love to have seen an examination of this man’s faith journey.
There are three women in Segerstedt’s life, and the film is more about them than it is about World War II or theology. Segerstedt’s long-suffering wife Augusta (Ulla Skoog) loved him deeply, but resented his occasional philandering. Her husband’s public behavior at parties – he was the blowhard who brought up politics at the dinner table – wore on her as well. Segerstedt’s mistress Maja (Pernilla August) was a wild soul who brought more stress into his life than affection. And, throughout the film, in what feels like a tribute to Ingmar Bergman, Segerstedt makes several confessions to the ghost of his mother.
Ultimately, The Last Sentence, despite the great performances and awesome visuals, gets too preoccupied with its own interpersonal drama and soap opera dynamics, eventually forgetting to address some of the bigger moral implications it hints at. What are the wartime morals of a country that is not participating in the war, for instance? What responsibility does a journalist have in such a situation? Is moral outrage just as important as action, or is inaction the most harmful thing of all? These things are brushed up against, but lightly ignored.
At the end of the day, I have to recommend something so ambitious and gorgeous and well-assembled. But I feel more excitement at seeing more of Troell’s work than in this final in particular.