Los Angeles Times

'The Inheritance'

Times Staff Writer

"The Inheritance" is a powerhouse. Highly dramatic and intensely emotional, blessed with strong themes and an unstoppable narrative drive, it is adult, intelligent entertainment of a kind we rarely see these days.

No, it doesn't come from Hollywood, but you probably already guessed that.

A Danish-Swedish co-production directed by Denmark's Per Fly, "The Inheritance" is noticeably European in its concern with the conflicts between the demands of family, the passions of romantic love and the crushing burdens and responsibilities of class and work. In its exploration of societal forces and personal emotions that are strong enough to rip people apart, it's the kind of film that another Scandinavian, dramatist Henrik Ibsen, would have appreciated.

"The Inheritance" opens with a pre-credits sequence introducing a man who has the kind of material success most people fantasize about. When he pulls up to Stockholm's top hotel in a luxury car, he gets the personalized service only the wealthiest can command. But when his business meeting gets canceled, instead of returning home to Denmark, he stays over. He walks to a residential neighborhood and looks with a kind of regret at a window through which a stunning blond is visible.

Immediately, we flash back five years. The man and the woman, Christoffer (Ulrich Thomsen) and Maria (Lisa Werlinder), are married, with a clear, strong bond of trust and love between them. She is an up-and-coming actress, about to be offered "Romeo and Juliet" on the national theater's main stage; he runs a Stockholm restaurant so successful he's thinking of opening a branch.

In starting the film with these opposite sequences, director Fly (who was also one of its four screenwriters) sets himself a kind of challenge. Having removed suspense by revealing to us that this marriage will not last, he now has to make the process of this disintegration gripping in and of itself. He more than succeeds.

When a crisis occurs, Christoffer gets thrust back into a world he never wanted, a world he in fact fled four years earlier because he believed it was killing him. Christoffer, it turns out, is the heir to a family-owned Danish steel factory large enough to resemble a medieval fiefdom. Christoffer returns to this home, and his domineering mother Annelise, (the veteran Ghita Norby), insists that he stay, that he and only he must take command and run the enterprise.

This is a course of action, as Christoffer soon knows better than anyone, fraught with risk. The company is in deep financial trouble, and he is fated to face opposition from suspicious bankers and from a brother-in-law who expected to get the top job. And then there is Maria, the person who cares the most and fears the worst. Also looming is Christoffer's dormant sense of responsibility, the burden of ownership, the idea that what is best for the firm's 900 employees trumps what is best for him.

It is a mark of how satisfyingly complex "The Inheritance" is that all of this is the merest beginning of a compelling drama, a saga that follows Christoffer as he tries to stay true to all these competing demands. The film's intricate story details the problems he faces, the accommodations he makes and how the humanism represented by Maria fares against the inexorable demands of capitalism.

"The Inheritance" can, when summarized for review, sound schematic when it is quite the reverse. The film by its nature resists the notion of good and evil, instead presenting all-too-fallible people on every side of an issue who act the only way they feel they can in the face of what each individual views as a terrifying personal dilemma.

Also an achievement is the great naturalness and subtlety of the acting in situations that in other hands could be merely melodramatic. Werlinder is luminous and compelling as the woman who tries to do what's right not only for herself but for her marriage. And Thomsen, memorable as the returning son in Thomas Vinterberg's "The Celebration," not only matches up well with her but brings great tact and precision to his own demanding role.

With a face that can simultaneously look hard and soft, weak and cold, Thomsen is ideally cast as a man who is pulled in multiple directions, who doesn't know how much emotion he can afford to show, how much he can be himself in a world where honesty is interpreted as weakness and caring as worse.

It's the success of "The Inheritance" that as it shows Christoffer as a man increasingly cut off from his best side, it implies that his leeway to act other than he does is not as great as he and we might think. With its repeated shots of gates being slowly closed by mechanized arms, safely locking the family away from the world, this is a film that tells us we may never be more powerless than when we think we are most in control.

'The Inheritance'

No MPAA rating

Times guidelines: adult subject matter

Ulrich Thomsen ... Christoffer

Lisa Werlinder ... Maria

Ghita Norby ... Annelise

Lars Brygmann ... Ulrik

Karina Skands ... Benedikte

A Zentropa Entertainments presentation, released by Cinema Guild. Director Per Fly. Producer Ib Tardini. Executive producer Peter Aalbaek Jensen. Screenplay Per Fly, Kim Leona, Mogens Rukov and Dorte Hogh. Cinematographer Harald Gunnar Paalgaard. Editor Morten Giese. Costumes Stine Gudmundsen-Holmgreen. Music Halfdan E. Production design Soren Gam. Running time: 1 hour, 47 minutes. In Danish with English subtitles.

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