Ullmann Makes Directing Debut
`Sofie' reveals an intelligent yet timid filmmaking style
BOSTON — BY any standard, Liv Ullmann must be counted with the world's most extraordinary actresses. Her films include a long list of Ingmar Bergman classics - from "Persona" and "Cries and Whispers" to "Scenes From a Marriage" and "Autumn Sonata," among others - along with international productions such as "A Bridge Too Far" and stage successes such as "Anna Christie" on Broadway.
But performing is only one aspect of her career. Her two books, "Changing" and "Choices," have been translated into many languages. She has worked since 1980 as a goodwill ambassador for the United Nations, pleading the cause of underprivileged children around the world. She has received all manner of awards, medals, and honorary degrees.
Now Ms. Ullmann is a movie director, too. Some 35 years after her screen-acting debut, she has made her first picture on the business side of the camera: "Sofie," the story of a turn-of-the-century woman facing difficult decisions in life and love.
Based on a 1932 novel by Henri Nathansen, a respected Danish author, "Sofie" begins in 1886 and centers on a Copenhagen woman whose marital status - still single at the ripe old age of 28 - is generating much concern among her family and friends.
Attending a soiree at her uncle's mansion, however, she meets what appears to be the man of her dreams. He's handsome, successful, and talented enough to be considered one of the city's most promising artists. He paints a portrait of Sofie's parents and it delights everyone, from the subjects of the painting to the critic in the local newspaper. And this newfound friend is as crazy about Sofie as she is about him.
There's only one obstacle in the way of their marriage: He isn't Jewish, and try as they might to be broad-minded, Sofie's relatives squirm at the thought of an outsider in the family. So when a more conventional suitor arrives on the scene - a Jewish cousin named Jonas who's steady, reputable, and boring - she bows to tradition and takes him as her husband.
THE rest of the story chronicles the results of her decision, which include a decent life and a wonderful child, but also growing unhappiness with a spouse whose mind and health prove sadly unstable. The end of the movie finds her young son about to embark on an adult life that is likely to develop very differently from hers.
Ullmann has directed "Sofie" in a manner that is true to the characters and their way of life: cautious, measured, and rarely eager to break new ground or take onlookers by surprise. There are occasional breaks in its even-toned demeanor, as when Sofie expresses her sudden sexual passion for the painter she loves, and later for a friend who becomes her companion during her husband's illness. But these moments pass by as quickly as they arise, returning us to an atmosphere that's as predictable as the cha racters who inhabit it.
While this doesn't make "Sofie" an altogether dull movie, it does have tedious stretches between its more obviously dramatic passages. The acting - by such Scandinavian stars as Karen-Lise Mynster and Erland Josefson, who play Sofie and her father - has the same earnest sentimentality that marks the visual style and the screenplay, which Ullmann wrote with Peter Poulsen, a prolific Danish author making his movie-writing debut.
The camera work is by Jorgen Persson, who specializes in the lovely but rather monotonous imagery found in such pictures as "Elvira Madigan" and "Pelle the Conqueror," which are among his credits.
In all, "Sofie" introduces the multitalented Ullmann as a very careful filmmaker who needs to inject her style with the same creative energy that distinguishes her best achievements as an actress. She has the skill and intelligence to become a capable director. What's lacking so far is a sense of adventure.
* "Sofie" has not been rated. It contains nudity and a couple of sexually oriented scenes.