Blame it on Ibsen.
The great Norwegian playwright didn't invent the realist drama, but he kicked it off in great form with works such as "An Enemy of the People" and "The Master Builder." People crushed by society, their families, or their own ambition. Greed and betrayal. The hand-wringing, the herring.
There's all that and more in Danish director Per Fly's "The Inheritance." If you have even a passing acquaintance with recent Scandinavian cinema, much of what transpires will be familiar; if you've seen Thomas Vinterberg's "The Celebration" or Baltasar Kormakur's "The Sea," you might find yourself double-checking your ticket stub. In brief: Prodigal son returns home, all helvete breaks loose.
The weak-willed center of this storm is Christoffer (Ulrich Thomsen, the star of "Celebration"), who's living happily as a restaurateur in Stockholm with his actress wife when his father up and dies. Bullied by his mother, Annelise (Ghita Norby), into coming back to Denmark and taking over the family steel firm, he's soon working late, guzzling French wine, and sinking into workplace intrigues. Yes, these ironmongers are rumormongers too.
Christoffer's wife, Maria (Lisa Werlinder), had agreed to two years in Copenhagen, but his swift fall -- or ascension, as his blood relatives see it -- from sensitive partner to icy industrialist tries even her faith in him. Whether she's pulled in to factory life by dinnertime discussions of the firm's credit rating or kept out of it by her husband's silence, it's all bad news. A "festive" hunt with the full cast of back-stabbers, each one armed and dangerous, is little consolation.
The actors give it their best, Thomsen and Werlinder in particular, and at moments the film grazes some greater truth. We see the son slip slowly into his father's clothes, working in the same study and taking on the same pallor. Deficits turn up, and stacks of workers must be laid off and a merger hastily consummated. The pressure builds, and Christoffer's face starts to blur. But just when you think the film's director is going to let things rip, he doesn't. A child is born, smiles tentatively return, and pretty soon it seems as if we're headed into a happy Nordic sunset. But no: Confrontations erupt, more bottles are emptied, and yet another head rolls. The next day it's back to work, and on we trundle.
In Ibsen's plays the past exerts an endless pressure on the characters as they try to wriggle out of whatever cruel fate the playwright has in store for them. Part of the problem with "The Inheritance" is that while the entire movie is one massive flashback, the real reasons for all this Danish dysfunction go unexplored. Who was the father? Why is the mother so interested in edging out her daughter's husband? What kind of hold does creaky old Niels (Peter Steen) have on young Christoffer? Fly doesn't appear to have even sketched it out for himself, much less us.
Like "A Doll's House," "The Inheritance" ends with the slam of a door, though the sound is anything but Ibsen's call to social revolution. Instead, the film turns out to be a certain kind of fantasy, that of unwanted wealth and the poisons that flow from it. Our king gets his castle, the price is steep, little is learned. But if mom or dad comes offering you control of the family smelter, I'd say give it a miss.
Leighton Klein can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.