This woman (Neneh Cherry) emerges from her apartment building in Stockholm not ready to face the day. She is a lecturer in architecture at the university, but the talk she was supposed to be giving this morning is not something she can face because something is preying on her mind, a tragedy she was involved with that occurred about a year ago and that she still has not gotten over. She decides instead of going to work that she will walk off her despair and roam the city streets of the Swedish capital, visiting various locations that remind her of happy times and unhappier times as she contemplates both her place there and the character of the region, where it fits in the great scheme of things...
Director and writer (with Anita Oxburgh) Mark Cousins had been making his name as a chronicler of film from around the world, and that also made the geography of his work important, as he liked to visit places that were connected to movie history, yet also places where the connections were not quite as obvious. Stockholm was one of those, a part of the world that may have been held up as an ideal of social harmony the rest of the planet could learn from, but somewhere there was a high degree of melancholy too: if you were staying within the cinematic remit, famed director Ingmar Bergman did as much for portraying his homeland as a mire of gloomy introspection as its porn industry did to portray it as a haven of the open-minded.
Think of Sweden and you might start to conjure images of wide open spaces, healthy living, long days in summer and long nights in winter, a particular flavour that the more you delved into it, as would be the case with just about anywhere on the globe, the multifaceted nature of the area would make itself plain. Some places you think of what they were best known for and maybe only a couple of things, even one, would spring to mind, but Sweden, if not Stockholm, held a place in pop culture for a number of reasons, from film to literature to music. Cousins made a point of using three celebrated composers to use on his soundtrack, Franz Berwald, the classical practitioner of the nineteenth century, Benny Andersson of ABBA, and Cherry herself.
That last was a given since she was the one whose voice we heard almost exclusively over the visuals, narrating in three separate ways as the plot, if you could call it that, was split into three sections, one where she spoke in English, one in Swedish, and finally in captions where we barely heard her voice at all. This was to represent the stages of her grief at being involved with a fatal accident: it was not her fault, but she cannot help but feel responsible, and it has taken this whole year for her to begin to wake up from her depression, which she manages to an extent for the duration of the film. As she does so, she took us on a tour of Stockholm, allowing us to understand how the architecture of a city can be a prison if you are stuck in despondency, or can be liberating when you realise the possibilities it holds.
Oddly, the unnamed central character did not do so by interacting with her fellow citizens, as if it was too painful to attempt to make conversation like a "normal" person which was the very reason she had turned inwards. Nope, instead she worries at her life like a tongue at a loose tooth, and you could see how Cousins was using his experience with the other cities he had filmed in to make the background the foreground, setting his leading lady in a context of an individual who was part of the collective, and how lonely you could feel if you did not accept that position. So there was a lot of moping about as Cherry wandered various landmarks and simply observed, captured by Christopher Doyle's often shot on video cinematography, but just at the point when you were thinking, geez, it's going on a bit, not one joke in this is there? There happened a sequence on a rollercoaster that was about as far from Bergman as Stockholm was from Cousins' native Belfast, a joyous, silly, uplifting minute or two where the weight is lifted from the shoulders. It was quite lovely, and worth sticking with for its full effect.
[The BFI's Blu-ray has a couple of explanatory featurettes, trailers, a gallery and a booklet as extras.]