Heaven on Earth 2

Directed by Kay Pollak
Written by Kay Pollak and Carin Pollak
Rated M
135 minutes

Eleven years ago, a sweet and sentimental Swedish film opened in Sydney and refused to go away. As it is in Heaven was about the spiritual transformation of a tiny northern village when a burned out conductor takes over the church choir.

I wrote then that it was one the best things to come out of Sweden since Abba, which was immoderate but true. The film ran for two years in Sydney, becoming a phenomenon. It was successful in other places too, including Sweden, but not to the same degree. The film was snubbed by the Swedish industry’s own film awards that year – none from eight nominations.

Kay Pollak was 68 when he made it, and had not made a film in 18 years. He’s now 78 and hasn’t made another film in the intervening decade. He should not have made this one either. It’s a mess, in which the small failures of the first film turn into great, heaving mistakes of judgement, without the benefit of the transformative voice of Helen Sjoholm.

She is what made the first picture. She was already a popular singer and stage actress in Sweden, but this was her first major film role. Her character Gabriella defied her beast of a husband to sing in the choir, after famous conductor Daniel Dareus (Michael Nyqvist) awakened her sense of self. Sjoholm’s rendition of Gabriella’s Song, backed by the rag-tag choir of village outcasts, brought the house down in the final concert. That one scene transformed the movie from hokum into something grander and truthful.

Helen Sjoholm isn’t in the new film, nor is Michael Nyqvist. His character was last seen dying from a brain injury after a fall at the end of the first film. I don’t know if Sjoholm declined or was not asked to reprise, but she is sorely missed. From the original cast, that leaves only beautiful bouncy blonde Lena (Frida Hallgren) to carry the film, with the original vodka priest Stig (Niklas Falk) and Arne (Lennart Jahkel), the sports store manager, in support.

It is nine months since Daniel died, and Lena is about to have his baby.  She’s singing in a country band, with Arne on accordion, when her waters break. There’s a storm outside, the midwife can’t make it, Arne faints under pressure, leaving poor pissed Stig to play doctor. So far, so good: Pollak has a sure hand with comedy. It’s the other emotions that get him into trouble

From the start, the idea in these films has been to burn down the Lutheran church as a pillar of Swedish society and replace it with a freer, more joyous kind of spirituality. Singing became a weapon against repression – not just the church, but the patriarchy in all its forms, including those cowardly men who beat their wives.

In the second film, Lena decides to bring the choir back to peak. Stig’s church is under renovation, at the end of which there will be a concert, televised nationally, a performance of Handel’s Messiah. Stig’s dyspeptic church superior, Bjelke (Bjorn Granath) brings in experienced musical director Bruno (Thomas Hanzon) but Lena won’t have it. Bruno was once her high school music teacher; he got her pregnant, then abandoned her. Thomas Hanzon’s performance is almost musical-hall worthy – he should have a cape and horns. Bjelke, the priest who wants to get rid of Stig, is even worse, bellowing every line.

Pollak’s big heart means he often goes too far, something we can forgive, until he really goes too far. That happens often here, especially in the final reels. And yet, there is an occasional moment of grace, like the scene in which Lena and her new boyfriend Axel (Jacob Oftebro), a hunky carpenter, harness a friend’s dog team and take a ride around the beautiful lakes outside town. That scene struck me as very Swedish, charming but natural. Almost none of the rest of the film has that naturalness. Pollak’s direction is way too manipulative to allow us that freedom, even in a film that’s all about freedom.