Inheritance (12A)

Dark heart of the family
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The Independent Culture

It is difficult to watch Per Fly's brooding familial drama Inheritance without bumping up against ghosts from Shakespeare. For one thing, most of it is set in Denmark, which naturally prepares us for a hero tormented by indecision and appalled by the rottenness around him. Christoffer (Ulrich Thomsen) is a little old to play Hamlet, but burdened with a dead father and a scheming mother, he might be feeling some kinship with the young Prince.

It is difficult to watch Per Fly's brooding familial drama Inheritance without bumping up against ghosts from Shakespeare. For one thing, most of it is set in Denmark, which naturally prepares us for a hero tormented by indecision and appalled by the rottenness around him. Christoffer (Ulrich Thomsen) is a little old to play Hamlet, but burdened with a dead father and a scheming mother, he might be feeling some kinship with the young Prince.

Thomsen's presence actually recalls a more recent drama, also of Danish provenance, also about the poisoned well of patrimony. No one who saw Thomas Vinterberg's Festen will easily forget Thomsen's anguished performance as Christian, a restaurateur returning home for his father's 60th birthday party and dramatically exposing his lordly paterfamilias as the sexual abuser of his childhood. Aside from a brief but shocking rape scene towards the end, nothing quite so unspeakable lurks in the wings of Inheritance, though in its reckoning of the havoc a sense of duty can wreak it lowers a heavy-spirited pall.

Christoffer, perhaps echoing Christian, is also a restaurateur, living in Stockholm in blissful contentment with his actress wife Maria (Lisa Werlinder), who's just been contracted to play a season of Romeo and Juliet - another glancing premonition of the familial fireworks to come.

Stunned by the news of his father's suicide, Christoffer returns to his native Copenhagen to learn that the family steel business, which he quit four years earlier, is mired in debt and on the verge of collapse. His mother Annelise (Ghita Norby) urges him to take on the responsibility of running the firm; but Maria, who knows that he was almost destroyed by the stress of the job, begs him not to. And no sooner has he given her his assurance that he won't bow to his mother's pressure than he's announcing to the workforce that he intends to take over from his late father.

From that point we watch Christoffer's fate begin to enclose him as securely as the electronic gates around the family mansion, craftily vacated for him by his mother.

Per Fly works variations on this theme, exchanging the light, airy apartment Christoffer shared with Maria for the hard, sleek surfaces of the corporate executive: the black company Audi looks much like a hearse carrying him to his doom. It isn't long before the blinkers of capitalism have narrowed his gaze. It's a canny touch that news of his brother-in-law's disloyalty reaches him just as the family is gearing up for a day's hunting: we can already scent the blood on the carpet. Another film-maker might have pressed the analogy and shown Christoffer stalking through a field and drawing a bead on his prey; Fly instead simply cuts to him entering the offender's office and demanding his instant removal.

The family business is being saved, though at the cost of steeling a good man's heart. The mystery of this tragic metamorphosis, and indeed of the self-slaughter of Christoffer's father, would seem to reside in the peripheral but decisive character of the mother, played with a precisely chilling calibration of tone by Ghita Norby. As maternal operators go she's right up there with Livia Soprano. One great scene finds her and Christoffer settling down in a restaurant when the latter spots his estranged sister and brother-in-law across the room; Christoffer's uncertain eye contact as they exit the place is in stark contrast to his mother, who blithely ignores them in favour of beaming at their waiter. "Can't you try to be different from them?" asks Maria despairingly, but Christoffer, having agonised over his choices, has finally succumbed to the imperatives of the DNA.

By the end, the reluctant capitalist has become as remote and untouchable as any tyrant from Shakespeare, and it is tribute to Ulrich Thomsen's quietly repressed performance that the final scenes carry such a weight of sadness. It amounts to a coldly ironic rebuke of that old Christmas favourite It's A Wonderful Life wherein James Stewart sacrifices his personal inclinations for the sake of maintaining the family business. After his dark night of the soul, Stewart ends up back in the arms of his wife and children, the toast of Bedford Falls. Christoffer in Inheritance acts with similar self-denial, but instead of the Capra catharsis he encounters merely hard-nosed business realities. His dark night doesn't have an end.

Thirty years after its first release, Robert Altman's folk epic Nashville starts an extended run at the National Film Theatre in London. This was the film in which Altman's freewheeling, overlapping style came into its own, melding documentary observation with impish satire on a mad merry-go-round of political canvassing and country entertainment. It feels almost like an improvised revue, thronged with so many of the great Seventies faces - Ned Beatty, Lily Tomlin, Karen Black, Michael Murphy, Barbara Baxley, Shelley Duvall, Elliott Gould and, as an intensely annoying BBC reporter, Geraldine Chaplin. With great daring, Altman dispenses with plot, and presents instead loosely interconnected characters, allowing his focus to settle just long enough before giving the kaleidoscope another twist. For all its sideswipes at the body politic, however, the film's stand-out is one of its least typical sequences: Keith Carradine's melancholic performance of "I'm Easy". If you want to know what inspired Paul Thomas Anderson to make Boogie Nights and Magnolia, this is the place to start.

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