A devoted spouse stands by the Alzheimer’s-stricken significant other, a celebrated artistic genius. I speak not of Iris, but Bille August’s similarly-themed Swedish-language drama, which trumps its higher profile counterpart by telling a more involving love story and hence more affecting tale of disease. Martin (Sven Wolter) is a brillant conductor/composer who strikes up a late-in-life affair with Barbara (the late Viveka Seldahl). Both having been stuck in long-fizzled marriages for years, each finds in the other a grand, life-affirming passion that they previously only had for music. Their courtship is sweet and touching, not to mention completely convincing, due in no small part to–in a most welcome inverse of the norm–the palpable screen chemistry between real-life marrieds Wolter and Seldahl.
That same rapport also makes the inevitable onset of illness all the more heartbreaking. Martin and Barbara marry, but wedded bliss is shortlived when the disease ever so gradually takes its toll on Martin’s faculties, impairing his ability to everyday things, let alone compose the opera he promised his manager (Reine Brynolfsson). August so firmly establishes characters of Martin and Barbara and their relationship, so when the disease does enter the picture, the film does not suddenly become about that; the focus clearly remains on the effect it takes on the people — not simply Martin, who stubbornly attempts to carry on with writing his opus despite his obvious inability to do so; but mostly Barbara, who must face the choice of devoting her life to caring for her love or carving out a life of her own.
“Martin” may not carry the historical relevance as the Miramax awards hopeful or the pedigree of that film’s cast (Judi Dench, Jim Broadbent, and Kate Winslet), but the film is all the better for it. Without the weight of scrutiny that comes with tackling a real-life subject or employing such heavyweight actors, “Martin” is freer to move and surprise an audience. There may not be much in the way of the latter area, but the work of August and his terrific leads certainly succeed in the former.