I don’t know about you, but I tend to struggle accepting some motion pictures that get adapted to the silver screen from the written page. It isn’t as if these aren’t stories worth telling; I think because so many films undergo this process that point is clear by itself. Rather, I think it’s that invariably things get lost in the adaptation. Characters undergo a bit of a ‘cinematization,’ bringing them to life in ways that prose can’t always match. Sometimes, entire passages or occurrences of high relevance get entirely hacked or repackaged in the screenplay because they’re simply not working with the visual narrative. And – in some rare cases – the point of it all gets muddied up not necessarily by any flaw of the adaptation but more likely because film is a decidedly different medium than is the book.
I suspect that this may be the case with SIMON AND THE OAKS. Come the humble but mildly predictable finish, I’m not certain what point Marianne Frederiksson wanted with her novel, nor director Lisa Ohlin with her film.
(NOTE: The following review will contain minor spoilers necessary solely for the discussion of plot and/or characters. If you’re the type of reader who prefers a review entirely spoiler-free, then I’d encourage you to skip down to the last three paragraphs for my final assessment. If, however, you’re accepting of a few modest hints at ‘things to come,’ then read on …)
In the build-up to World War II, two families in Sweden come together out of necessity: Isak is the son of a wealthy Jewish businessman needing a home to call his own while his father cares for his wife after she suffers a nervous breakdown due to the rising social tensions. Thankfully, Isak goes to school with Simon, the son of a working class couple, and the family is only happy to take the boy in. Gradually, what starts out as two families ends up colliding in ways charming and other ways heartbreaking in a tale ultimately about uncovering and releasing one’s spirit.
SIMON AND THE OAKS is the kind of films critics love. First, it’s based on a novel, which is never a bad place to start. Second, it’s set during a time of global conflict that contributed to a staggering amount of personal strife: much of the story deals primarily with the World War II era and that era directly evolving out of it. Lastly, it’s a script handmade for A-C-T-O-R-S with serious gifts … and trust me when I say that everyone here – from the children on up to every single adult – brings some terrific work to life in this 122 minutes.
As history unfolds between these various characters – both due to the war as well as some personal discoveries – OAKS takes on a life all of its own, much like the mighty oak that young Simon spends the days of his youth exploring as well as sleeping, reading, and daydreaming in its arms. There’s a kind of visual poetry at play – each performer clearly builds his or her moments on the strength of what’s come before – and it’s amazing to watch this ensemble experience the highs and lows of a shared destiny.
However … (and you knew there was one coming, didn’t you?)
Like that tree, OAKS is big, noticeable, yet piercingly impersonal. I never felt truly drawn into these various lives, not the way I’ve been with other big-cast ensemble dramas. It’s almost as if director Ohlin wanted me kept at arm’s length, never quite crossing the divide to establish a solid connection with any of them. Instead – like studying a tree – I’m left on the ground to marvel at its limbs, its leaves, and what may hide there. I’m only allowed to speculate about its roots – never quite see them clearly – while what sprang from them is on full display.
I liken it to the character Iza, a young Jewish girl who survived something unimaginably brutal called the Holocaust. I’m introduced to her. I’m shown how she almost creepily attaches herself to a few gifts presented by her uncle. Later, I’m shown how she behaves in polite society, and I’m even treated to an aggressive yet degrading sexual encounter she shares with a grown up Simon. Just as the tree’s roots are hidden from me, so is exactly what made this character behave as she did. Sure, I can make some educated guesses, and I do. Still, all I can evaluate from her own attempts at self-destruction is that she underwent something (as I said) unimaginably brutal, though I’m not told what to make further of it in this complex, growing ensemble.
Maybe that’s what the director intended. As I hope I’ve been clear, I’m not certain that’s what I’m to make. If so, then lesson learned … but, if you’ll pardon me, I knew that going in. I tend to like additive experiences to actually ‘add up’ to something more than where it all began. This one just quite didn’t for me, and I hope you’ll find greater meaning to its narrative than I.
Lastly, I’d be remiss in my critical duties if I failed to mention that the film scored an impressive number of nominations at the Swedish version of the Academy Awards, along with receiving “Official Selection” status at the Seattle, Berlin, and Palm Springs Film Festivals. Bravo, all!
SIMON AND THE OAKS (2011) is produced by Gotafilm, Asta Film, Schmidtz Katze Filmkollektiv, Filmkameratene A/S, and Film i Vast. DVD distribution (stateside) is being handled by RLJ Entertainment and Image Entertainment. For those needing it spelled out perfectly, this is a mixed language release (German and Swedish) with English subtitles available. As for the technical specifications? No expense was clearly spared in bringing this rich tapestry to life with the highest quality sights and sounds. Sadly, if it’s special features you’re looking for, then prepare to be monumentally disappointed as this disc offers up exactly nothing.
RECOMMENDED but may be a bit frustrating. You want acting? SIMON AND THE OAKS has acting! You want impressive but not overpowering cinematography? Well, SIMON AND THE OAKS has that! You want erstwhile production work all wrapped up in a bow that it’ll make you smile? Have you heard of this film called SIMON AND THE OAKS? In fact, SIMON AND THE OAKS has just about everything one viewer could ask, and somehow still – once it’s all over – I’m not sure what director Lisa Ohlin wanted me to take away from it. The film is rich with parallels across these multi-generational characters, but somehow it all just feels like a performance piece wherein only those so deeply and personally involved in the narrative know precisely what to make of their shared destinies.
In the interests of fairness, I’m pleased to disclose that the fine folks at RLJ Entertainment and Image Entertainment provided me a DVD copy of SIMON AND THE OAKS by request for the expressed purposes of completing this review; and their contribution to me in no way, shape, or form influenced my opinion of it.