Siiri Angerkoski and Aku Korhonen are angry parents berating their daughter Helga (Regina Linnanheimo) for having a child out of wedlock. But she drops her case against Pekka (Joel Rinne), the father of her child, in order to spare him the pain of perjuring herself, leading a local family to take pity on her and hire her as a housemaid.
Helga becomes a witness to the goings on at the home of a well-to-do household, where heiress Hildur (Ester Toivonen) is due to be married to local boy Mauri (Tauno Palo). When Mauri comes to believe that he has drunkenly murdered someone (we’ve all been there), his confession causes his betrothed to reject him, only for Helga to turn up with evidence that acquits him. By that point, Mauri has decided that Helga is the girl for him – her insanely high standards of piety and righteousness trump any physical attractions of the radiant Hildur, and the two of them are married.
The opening credits boast that the film is based on Selma Lagerlöf’s “world-famous” story, presumably because earlier Swedish-language adaptations of her novella were shown in the United States. Lagerlöf was the first woman to win the Nobel Prize for Literature (in 1909), but this forgettable melodrama was surely one of her minor works. We have to view it through a series of filters – a story written originally from a Swedish perspective now dragged into a Finnish world; a story dating from 1908, suddenly forced into entertaining us in May 1940. Even at the time of its Finnish release, the press was dismissive of an old-fashioned tale about old-fashioned mores when Finns had other issues to deal with. “Particularly at a time like this,” commented Paula Talaskivi in the Helsingin Sanomat, “it’s difficult to get invested in the atmosphere required by a romantic love story.” The provincial press was more forgiving, with several reviewers commenting that a tale of simpler times was a welcome diversion.
Linnanheimo is a miserable protagonist, grizzling in the woodshed about her predicament, while the film has presumably been cranked out under understandably austere conditions – it’s shot on a limited number of sets, with exteriors largely limited to what appears to be someone’s backyard in a forest somewhere, presumably shot in the summer of 1939. Anything else interesting arrives as reported speech, read out of a newspaper at dinner or otherwise happening off-screen.
In something of a new direction for Ester Toivonen, she only appears to be the romantic lead. In fact, her character Hildur is destined to reject Mauri, thereby becoming a bit of a heel. We see her fretting at the dining table, surrounded by gossiping old wives, her wedding crown set tantalisingly before her. In this role, Toivonen becomes oddly beguiling, discovering perhaps that she enjoys being a disdainful posh girl more than she ever liked being the ingénue. At the end, it’s Hildur who drives Mauri to meet Helga on the road, where he proclaims his love for her, and the two of them rub cheeks like robots trying to attach their facial SCART leads. As Helga getting her happy ending, Linnanheimo tries to smile, but she looks like she is trying to thoughtfully pass a gallstone.
Jonathan Clements is the author of An Armchair Traveller’s History of Finland. He is watching all the Finnish films, so you don’t have to.