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A Fine Family Feud

By Desson Thomson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, August 6, 2004; Page WE32

THERE IS something magnificently Shakespearean about "The Inheritance," Per Fly's Danish drama about a son who becomes a reluctant heir to power.

It's about a family in crisis, where all the players are archetypally painted and fight each other to the symbolic death. It's about power, love, vindictiveness and betrayal. It's about forgiveness, too, and deception. All the great emotions we're used to in the works of Ibsen and Shakespeare wash over us in bountiful flow.


Benedikte (Karina Skands), left, Ulrik (Lars Brygmann), Maria (Lisa Werlinder), Niels (Peter Steen), Christoffer (Ulrich Thomsen), Annelise (Ghita Norby), and Sarah (Juel Werner) in "The Inheritance." (Per Arnesen -- The Cinema Guild)


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Christoffer (Ulrich Thomsen) and his wife, Maria (Lisa Werlinder), live happily in contemporary Stockholm where Maria is a successful stage actress. He lovingly helps her recite her lines. There is a playfulness to their love. But when Christoffer's father commits suicide in Denmark, their private bliss takes an irreversible turn. Christoffer's mother (Ghita Norby) insists that her oldest son take over his father's business, a Danish steel company with several hundred workers.

Christoffer promises Maria he will not accept this position, which would mean leaving Stockholm. But when he faces all those workers at the announcement of the death, he suddenly realizes he cannot abandon his sense of duty. Watching furiously from the wings is his brother Ulrik (Lars Brygmann), whose ambition to run the company is no secret.

As the new leader, and with his stalwart, domineering mother at his side, Christoffer takes the drastic measures he must to run a good comapny. He intends to gain control of the European steel market with the help of a merger with an equally strong French steel company. But there is a human cost, ranging from the lives of the workers whose jobs he must cut, to the people close to him that he must similarly ignore in favor of the company's success.

Maria is outraged and feels betrayed. And as Christoffer becomes increasingly embedded in his stewardship, she feels abandoned.

"The Inheritance" is the second in Fly's intended trilogy set in three different social classes, the lower, middle and upper. (The original film, 2000's "The Bench," was set in the working class.) And like "The Bench," it gives us an ensemble of formidable characters whose opinions and attitudes are given full rein. The setting in "The Inheritance" is modern, but these relationships and emotional tussles feel like the in-house, backstabbing royal warfare of "Richard III" or "King Lear," and there's more than a few echoes of James Goldman's "The Lion in Winter." Christoffer takes his position as seriously as a prince acquiring the throne; he feels the same, almost divinely ordained sense of destiny. His mother might as well be Eleanor of Aquitaine.

The cast, all classically trained on the stage, is simply commanding. Norby, a stalwart of Scandinavian films, is a mother to be reckoned with. Thomsen (who has appeared in many Dogme-style films such as Thomas Vinterberg's "The Celebration" and Anders Thomas Jensen's "Flickering Lights") exudes torment exquisitely. His cold-sealed sense of responsibility and his romantic devotion to Maria wreak emotional havoc. It's no surprise that this prolonged battle takes it toll on him. Alone and drunk in an idyllic resort in the South of France, he realizes he has become a shell, that his soul is shriveling. The desperate measure he takes, and the poor woman unfortunate to be there when it happens, is a jarring scene you won't soon forget.

Werlinder's Maria combines fragility and tremendous strength, all at once. It's one thing to claim the high ground and lead a company of dependent workers and family men, but it's quite another to face this woman and tell her.

THE INHERITANCE (Unrated, 107 minutes) -- Contains violence, obscenity, nudity and sexual scenes. In Danish with subtitles. At Visions Cinema.


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