If you follow trends or, as I do, watch them dissipate like parti-colored liquids amidst the endless blue of the ocean, you will have noticed the modern motif "anything can happen." A watchword, we note, unimbued with the optimism of an "anything is possible." Rather, we are dealing with a world devoid of moral bearing, of unguided missiles slamming into one another from every angle at any given time. For that reason those of us who believe in salvation cannot bear to watch the gangster showdowns and existential poppycock that have become staples of modern cinema because they all amount to the same thing. If chaos or challenging general principles of societal conduct is your aim, you will fail because you will never find an appropriate alternative; the goal is only to overthrow the existing order for the sake of revolt and not because you have anything with which to replace it. Hence arises youth's riot, antisocial behavior that is a badge of honor for many teenagers with a pathetic pledge to nonconformity (which, of course, is another type of conformity) expressed in its violent speech, clothes, and music. You might achieve some semblance of power or wealth, but in the end you will be assaulted and deposed by a more ruthless and energetic version of yourself, and he soon enough by yet another improved version. This is evolution: death, destruction, survival of the most callous and selfish. Yet somewhere among these innumerable slayings over innumerable centuries we have found love. Not just sex– although sex is in many instances an expression of love – but real, wholesome, unending, blissful adoration. Love of what life offers us, what lies behind the ineluctable modality of the visible, what being moral and caring for others will come to mean over all our years and beyond. This film is about love, and it is one of the greatest ever made.
We find ourselves on the east coast of Scotland in the 1970s, a time when this director was becoming a man and imagining lands where he could be unrestrained in his ambition (all creative teenagers adopt other shores because nothing is more tedious than home; the luckiest eventually come to see that they had been growing up in those imagined lands all along). Like the ravaged villages in the wake of the pagan Viking conquerors, the town has few inhabitants, and over the centuries has turned into a pocket of what we currently term Christian fundamentalism. Now there is nothing wrong with fundamentalist Christianity apart from its name. Has Christianity so drifted from its core values as to become subject to revision by fierce troupes of Bible thumpers? That question, easily answered by someone of no faith, is more troubling to our heroine Bess (Emily Watson). Bess is a believer in the direct meaning of the word. She does not really believe in angels, or ancient events, or the Church as the divining rod of the Almighty; she simply believes that there is some force greater than she could ever imagine that guides and rules and hears everything and everyone. Specifically, it hears her. She talks to it but provides us and the camera with the other side of the conversation, which is unusual but which never devolves into those very modern delusions of communication that quickly get the self-dialoguer subdued or medicated. Bess believes this force exists just as we believe that our hand is attached to our arm, that a door can be opened and closed, and that when we step off our bed and onto the floor, the floor will not collapse or turn out never to have been there in the first place. Faith for her is not an intellectual debate, it is her compass and candle. She does not need ritual, prayer, communion, sacrifice, or the Passion. She needs only to talk and her God will answer her, probably by allowing her to come to the right conclusion on her own.
In a way, what Bess perceives as God are simply her reason and conscience working in tandem with a concept of how the world should be. She wants love and sex and, most of all, she wants to live. Persons of true faith understand that it is better to lead a happy and moral life because when you are old, you can enjoy it again – and, of course, there always remains the possibility of its eternal enjoyment. Bess wants everything a life should consist of: a good spouse, children, a warm, safe and loving home, enough material and nutritional pleasure to be neither in penury or decadence, friendship, laughter, and a chance to work at something she might enjoy. This is all she wants, and she is willing – indeed, this is the law within her – to lead this life with a man of no beliefs, a Scandinavian, and an outsider, the tall and brawny Jan (Stellan Skarsgård). Jan arrives in grand fashion, and late, to their wedding. Once his helicopter touches down, Bess pummels him for his lack of punctuality, but her blows – Bess at this point is still small and delicate – bounce off him and the love he has for her. They wed and she insists that she lose her virginity in the bathroom. Why this insistence? Strategically, it will set the tone for subsequent impulsive urges, more often than not somewhat unbecoming of a sweet young woman. But the suggestion also fits with what we know of Bess: she wants to live. She has the hardly uncommon desire to make love in a public place and be able to say, only really to herself, that she did it. Not to be seen or heard, but simply to know what it's like, because such an act doesn't really hurt anyone else. Her marriage to Jan does not please the locals, who dislike his religious indifference or ignorance and the fact that he is a Norseman. Jan also has an unappreciated profession: he works on a rigging platform in the North Sea, and is often away for weeks at a time. Bess misses him and makes us miss him, and her pining away for his hasty return leads to exactly that when a freak accident injures Jan and he is brought back to shore unmoving, paralyzed, and bedridden.
Somehow Bess senses that her prayers, or whatever you want to call her talking to herself, were responsible for Jan's having been lamed, and she resolves to do whatever it takes to make him feel like a whole man again. Eventually we hear his request: she should find other men, it doesn't really matter who they are, and with them continue the physical part of her relationship with Jan. But, it is implied, she should not love them. They are only there because Jan's body has been taken from him, but not his soul, his heart, or his mind. Those still belong to her, and so she can only pursue carnal pleasures and then report back to him on how they went. She loves him, she feels guilty for what happened, and, most of all, she believes that everything will work out. Jan will walk again, she thinks and says; of that she is convinced. All she has to do is abide by his will. Yet the acts that she commits with strangers are not for Jan, but for herself. In his odd way, and likely owing to a great deal of sexual experience, Jan understands that the time for such hijinks is when one is young. Never to have had a casual encounter, never once to have sweated and groaned in the arms of someone with whom you shared no past or future – these were the benchmarks of the culture of free love that was peaking in Scandinavia at the time. On a less topical note, these have always been the fantasies of people who are uninclined to marry, and Jan, strange as it may seem, is certainly one of those people. He encourages her because he would want her to do the same if the roles were reversed. This is undoubtedly selfish; but it is how Jan sees the world and there is nothing to be done about it. Besides, it is rather revolting to call a paraplegic selfish even when he inflicts such emotions on others.
Many laborious attempts have been made to analyze the motives behind Jan's request and Bess's compliance, but these are as clear as the sky towards which Bess's eyes seem constantly directed. Jan and Bess simply impose their own values on each other. Jan believes in sexual freedom and, more broadly, in letting people live the way they wish without judging them, which is another way of saying that he detests being judged. On the other hand, Bess believes in one mate and doing whatever necessary to make that relationship work. Some may say that she doesn't know better; but even if she did she might make the same decision. The adventures that Bess undertakes, including a very bad time on an offshore tanker with some rather rough (paying) customers, teach her that love and life are functions of how one acts, how one treats others, and what one comes to think of oneself. Bess is already an outsider because she does not sit in the amen corner and holler along with the congregation. Yet her brand of Christianity is the purest and truest that could be found because she believes, first and foremost, in love. The film shifts gears a few times and is unpleasantly seasoned with some pop hits from the time period, but the acting and script sail and saunter with outstanding vigor. Watson is so fantastic that we forget that she is an actress or that she is, in fact, Emily Watson. She becomes this sad young woman who only wants to live and love and give her heart and mind some sensual and vibrant mementos for later perusal. And there are few films as sensual and vibrant as this masterpiece, few works of cinematography that feel both like a film and like the truth, like cleverly designed artifice and pure inspiration. Here love is celebrated, love in its bizarre and personal forms (which is true love; love is never a harlequin romance because we are not harlequins) and every love story becomes a masterpiece of its own and the greatest achievement we can attain before the darkness swallows our bones. Even when we can hear bells in the distance.