I love Norwegians - they're so fierce. Facing her parents over the fact that she's been sleeping with a man while betrothed to another, Kristen bristles when she thinks her mother is trying to find out if she's pregnant. In the most emotional scene - between the married parents - the mother (Henny Moan) reveals the same secret that once served James Joyce with unending bitterness and remorse in the short story The Dead. Joyce's Dubliners cave in to their doubts, while these hardy Norwegians face up to every challenge with courage and love.
Made anywhere else, Kristen Lavransdatter might be a soap opera with lots of snow. Here, it's a national epic even though it takes place in the 14th century. Liv Ullmann's incredibly precise writing and direction hold us for three hours straight ... like Claude Lelouch's 1995 Les Misérables, this is a 90s classic that needs to be seen. Home Vision's DVD is pristine and is also the uncut full-length version.
Liv Ullmann turns out to be even a better director than she is an actress. Kristen Lavransdatter plunges us into a Christian-medieval Norwegian world that seems liveable and real. The settings are magnificent and the actors are fresh and fascinating.
The tale is about a young woman's cruel choices. Kristen turns away her first shy love because she's too devoted to her parents to think of defying her father's will that she marry another. She has gratitude for her situation, with her sister paralyzed (in an idyllic prologue set in their childhood) and other girls apparently sold off as brides for horrible old men. She also can't call her environment a hostile one, with two devoted and loving parents and caring neighbors. Even the nuns she lives with are decent and kind.
But Kristen finds her way into a forbidden love with a knight censured by the crown at Oslo and therefore unworthy of her hand. Erlend Nikulaussen has already outraged the province by stealing the bride of another man (one of those ancient cradle-robbers) and living with her openly. Now Kristen is bound to him through passion, and nothing anyone says can change her heart's desire.
The film is marvelously even-handed with what one would think is an impossible dilemma. Everyone initially adheres to proven modes of conduct as regards what honor and pride are owed. But unexpected resilience and tolerance appear everywhere. And Kristen taxes everyone's patience. Her priest from childhood (Erland Josephson) hears the worst from her and yet counsels her with understanding and love. A local outcast (from a similar romantic outrage in the previous generation, shades of Jacques Demy here) is considered a witch, but her involvement is entirely unselfish and benevolent. Even Kristen's spurned sweetheart shows that he means no harm, once he's able to make a gesture and save face.
The story shows the rapture that drives Kristen and her reckless knight-lover to be so destructive. Kristin starts out fairly ignorant, but even though she's the picture of innocence she never pretends to be so. Realizing how many people are going to be hurt, she concludes that lovers "trample on those around them." Yet she never considers backing down from what she wants. The story conceives of love as selfish and greedy and full of life itself. Even Kristen's father finally understands that to stand in its way is to guarantee disaster.
There are no guarantees for Kristin and Erlend, that's for sure. It's interesting that he's been splitting his time between Norway and Sweden, that liberal country to the East where sinning Norwegians go when they've been bad. From the outside, his commitment to Kristen seems shaky - we've seen many stories where reckless men turn out to be worthless liars. And we see the life he destroys so that he can have Kristin. Her father only fully understands her position when he realizes that every "perfect" marriage is founded on the pain of lost loves and missed opportunities.
Liv Ullmann directs as if born to the task, and Kristen Lavransdatter plays as a less-forced, more natural version of stories we're used to seeing in a more expressionist, forced mode. The story and direction have an understanding and tolerance of characters we don't often see in the thesis-driven films of male directors. 1 Ullmann also uses Sven Nykvist's camera with effortless ease; there are early scenes in the wood that have a magical quality, and a number of beautiful setups before a candle-lit home altar that still don't look too sophisticated for the 14th century.
Elisabeth Matheson is wondrous as Kristen, with her freckled face and guileless eyes. Bjorn Skagestad as Erland makes sympathetic what could easily be a contemptable character. Jorgen Langhelle's Simon shows that a hayseed character doesn't have to be a fool. As Kristen's parents, Henny Moan and Sverre Anker Ousdal carry on a side drama as powerful as the main story.
Home Vision's DVD of Kristen Lavransdatter has interesting insert notes from Tytti Soila, a Finnish writer who establishes the basis of the source book as a national epic and tells us that Liv Ullmann once played the title character on the stage. Ms. Ullmann is present for a taped interview about the movie. There is also a text extra about her career.
A tasteful and civilized story about timeless passions, Kristen Lavransdatter is as satisfying as romances get and a shining cultural advertisement for Norway. It's also a perfect stepping-stone back from the fantasy of Lord of the Rings to a more identifiable ancient world.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Kristin Lavransdatter rates:
1. An "action" version
of Kristin Lavrandsdatter with the same situation but in totally military mode, would
be the Charlton Heston movie The War Lord.