Elli Ojala (Laila Rihte) is duped out of her inheritance by her devious cousin Olli (Kaarlo Kartio), and has come to find work at the neighbouring farm, Roinila. There, she falls for Eero (Eero Eloranta), the heir to Roinila, who starts to suspect that Olli has not told Elli everything about her late father’s will. Eero and the retired sea captain Matti (Hemmo Kallio) sneak off to Helsinki to consult a judge. Finding Eero’s hat in the lake, the farm matron Sanna (Kaisu Puuska) immediately assumes he is dead, and breaks the news to the manor folk. Eero and Matti return to save the day, waving notarised documents, the sputtering Eero is taken away by the authorities, and everybody else heads off for a multiple wedding.
The last film directed by Erkki Karu (1887-1935), The House at Roinila (Roinilan talossa) is based on the 1883 play by the same name by Minna Canth (1844-97), a writer and activist so celebrated that she became the first Finnish woman to get her own national flag day. But The House at Roinila is unrepresentative of the work that made Canth truly famous, written two years before she would drift into gritty social realism with A Worker’s Wife (Työmiehen vaimo). Instead, it is a rather gentle and frankly unfunny pastoral comedy, in which three intersecting couples fall in love and overcome their tribulations. Elli and Eero are the supposed leads, although their romance is shadowed by that of Anna (Rauni Luoma), the daughter of Roinila, and her farmhouse manager Mauno (Toivo Palomurto). But although Canth was renowned in later life for her commentary on Finnish class and gender roles, The House at Roinila seems to offer little in the way of distinction between upstairs and downstairs. Mauno and Anna might witter about the struggle they face for coming from different worlds, as if they are somehow in some star-crossed dilemma like the characters in Miss Julie (1888), but there seems little difference – in class, clothes, mannerisms or language – between the lady of the manor and the peasant at the plough.
This may be a feature of the shift in setting. Canth’s stage play was a contemporary drama, and indeed, there is little in the first half of the film to make you think it is not set in the 1880s. A glimpse of electricity wires crossing a field presages the sudden influx of modern technology partway through the film, as Eero goes out for a drive in his motor car, thereby revealing that this movie adaptation, by the playwright Artturi Järviluoma, has moved the action fifty years later than Canth’s original. Like a similar moment in The Wind in the Willows, when what could have easily been 19th century country life is disrupted by a passing 20th century vehicle, it conveys the sense that decades of unchanging rural existence are beset by immense changes. In the gap between 1883 and 1935, Finland has won its independence, and fought a civil war largely defined by the social divisions between town and countryside. And it’s the countryside that is the true star of this film, as Karu’s camera lingers for long reveries on the lakeland of Hollola, near Lahti. Much of the film is shot outdoors in the long days of a Finnish summer – remarkably few scenes are set indoors, and when they are, they seem drab and lifeless by comparison.
Most of the cast, sadly, are also quite dull. The male leads are characterless drones, while as the disinherited Elli, Laila Rihte seems permanently dumbfounded to find herself at the centre of action and attention, all too aware that a camera is watching her. Rauni Luoma, as Anna, is supposed to play second fiddle, but her features are so striking, and her screen presence so powerful, that she dominates any scene she is in. Not that she hasn’t got competition from the underlings, particularly Kaisu Puuska as the idiotic Sanna who, common to many supporting actresses in 1930s Finnish films, has seemingly been directed to play her every scene as if she is an over-acting pantomime dame.
Acting the rest of the cast off the screen is veteran stage performer Hemmo Kallio as Matti the old sailor, a remarkably thin role that he stretches with comedy business, songs, soft-shoe shuffles and his recurring English catchphrase: “All right! Yes!” A man of the world with two hipsterish stud earrings, Matti has a seemingly endless supply of novelty pipes to smoke, and travels in the course of the film’s two hours from grating comedy bumpkin to vital saviour of the day. His own flirtations, with the aging cook Leena (Kaija Suonio), form the last of the three couplings in this film, but are the only ones that come with any sense of realism or genuine humour.
Jonathan Clements is the author of An Armchair Traveller’s History of Finland.