The Song of Sway Lake is one of those movies that is unbelievably inviting, and yet somewhat intimidating. It welcomes the viewer with extraordinarily gorgeous vistas and cinematography, but presents a story that is as equally unwelcoming. It delights the audience with music like you have never heard before, but packaged in a dynamic of unhealthy interpersonal relationships that can only make a person feel, at times, somewhat uneasy.
Set against a backdrop of some beautiful upstate New York getaway destination, The Song of Sway Lake tells the story of various generations of the Sway family, starting back in 1890 with a philanthropist named Ulysses Sway who purchased the land, it would over the years become an exclusive retreat for the “well to do,” where the younger war hero Hal Sway, along with his wife Charlotte (Charlie), would entertain guests with his piano playing while guests stayed at what was a luxurious vacation resort. The film even makes mention of such notable visits from Cole Porter and Dwight Eisenhower. There is even a reference to a young Timmy Sway, who is expected to fill some mighty big shoes. It is here that we now see the next generation, albeit rather briefly, as a now adult Timmy in 1992, who apparently has not lived up to the family name as set down by his father. His ending is, shall we say, an unpleasant one. And now 5 months after we say goodbye to Timmy, we now say hello to his son, Ollie (Rory Culkin) and his new best friend, Nikolai (Robert Sheehan) as they trek up to Sway Lake. Apparently there is an original recording of the song “Sway Lake” printed on an old 78 (How many of you remember what THAT is?) that Ollie feels belongs to him, being the music collector that he is. It is this recording that the movie centers around, both literally and symbolically, as we learn it was recorded by the singer Tweed McKay (beautifully voiced by John Grant) on the actual wedding night of Hal and the younger Charlie Sway. Why is this recording so significant? After it was recorded and only one copy was pressed, it was packaged and sealed, never having been played again. Given that this is supposed to be the original recording of the fabled song, its inherent value is believed to be very significant, both historically and monetarily. However, there is one other main player, that being an older Charlie herself (Mary Beth Peil) as she has decided to sell their home at the lake. With all of the players assembled, it is here that the drama starts to unfold.
This is a very difficult movie to navigate. Don’t misunderstand… I think it’s absolutely beautiful. From both a technical and artistic standpoint, this movie is virtually flawless. We have scenes of the land where this was filmed that would make anyone want to move there in a cold second. Whether it is a small, intimate scene focusing solely on the film’s primary characters, or if it’s a large vista filled shot, the backdrop for this movie is absolutely beautiful. Then you have your small cast. Young Rory Culkin has matured into quite the capable actor. Having come a long way from being a child actor himself (as with his famous siblings), Rory has continued to hone his acting chops and delivers his own tortured performance of a young man totally burdened by his family’s past. On the other hand you have the flamboyantly brilliant performance of Robert Sheehan as Nikolai. Given that the film takes place in 1994, and that this character is a Russian immigrant, it’s easy to determine that his young life wasn’t exactly a happy one having grown up during the last years of the Soviet Union. His life was all of the trappings that the Communism of that day had to offer, and now he is not only in the United States, but he’s becoming engulfed in this fictitious past of a post-WW2 America through his association with Ollie, and to say that he is intoxicated by it, and everything the Sway family represents, is something of an understatement. Sheehan gives us a character who is energetic, and possibly even naïve to the ways of the world, but when he’s finally surrounded by all things Sway you see a somewhat disturbing seduction take place. For as outrageous and over the top Sheehan is, the nuances in his performance are mesmerizing. Even while being loud and boisterous, Sheehan proves with his acting that less is indeed more. Lastly we have Charlie. Now a widow, who likes to write letters to her late husband Hal, she sees the passing of time and yearns for it to stop. She sees Sway Lake as being that which measures and shows the passage of time. Modern amenities are introduced to the lake. Motorboats are commonplace there, and they serve as a reminder that time has moved on, even when she so desperately doesn’t want it to. Peil’s performance is both beautiful and tragic. She gives us a person who never knew how to live beyond the romantic past during Sway Lake’s heyday. She also very subtly shows that she is a woman with emotional layers showing bitterness and anger one second, and pure vulnerability the next. It is not so much the plot, but rather these characterizations that drive the movie. Their performances are all nothing short of brilliant.
Early on I have said that this movie was difficult to navigate, unwelcoming, and even intimidating. The plot is nothing more than a secondary consideration in this otherwise magnificent film. The classic recording of “Sway Lake” becomes the centerpiece with these characters, but never develops into anything more than just a catalyst, representing something of a symbol to the past that each of our characters looks to, and after having the initial viewing I am afraid that is what most people will take away.
We live in an ADD society where movies have to deliver the point of the film all neatly wrapped up with a bow on top very early on, all to keep the attention of its audience. The Song of Sway Lake does not do that. This film cannot be taken at face value after a first viewing. Even after watching it I could not help but talk about it in trying to understand it. I kept feeling that there was something there tying all of the characters, the setting, and even the song all together, but it was out of my reach. As hard as I tried after seeing the film, all I could walk away with was how beautiful the movie looked, the flawless acting, and the gorgeous music (written by Ari’s identical twin, and equally genius Ethan Gold), and yet I could not grasp the point of the film. It took conversations and time to thoroughly digest it, and yet it was during the second viewing when the revelation came to me about what an artistic triumph this film truly is. Very early on we learn that Ollie’s father told him, “that a perfect thing must never be opened or sold.” That line is spoken very early on, so there is nothing to really spoil by revealing it. However, it carries much more weight than I had imagined or remembered. Upon hearing that line again the entire film suddenly came in to focus.
Now some may say that no film should have to be viewed more than once in order to fully comprehend its beauty and message. Perhaps that is so. Perhaps others, with a greater artistic sensibility, will be able to grasp what eluded me during their first viewing and be able to appreciate this film. Nevertheless, whether it is from a single viewing or multiple viewings, Ari Gold has managed to deliver an amazing piece of work. This film is a study of the classic American Ideal, whether we look to a fictitious past in an attempt to try to achieve something that really wasn’t quite there, or to feel a sense of burden at trying to live up to a standard that has been programmed into us, The Song of Sway Lake is a film about facing today, and tomorrow, with integrity and honesty.
Rating 4 out of 5 Stars
The Song of Sway Lake is currently on the film festival circuit and will be opening up the Tucson Film Festival on October 6, 2017, and the PR is being handled by Patricia Chica of ChicArt Public Relations.
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