Waltzing With a City in ‘Stockholm, My Love’

Alva Achebe is not alone. She might appear to be alone, but she is not. Instead, she is engaged in an intimate waltz; a dance in time and space with a supporting character so known to her that, at times, it is difficult to discern where it ends and Alva begins.

But still, from an outsider’s perspective, it would appear that Alva is alone. There are other people in her world, but they seem to exist in spite of her rather than by her side.

Their references to her, if there are any at all, are dispassionate and impersonal. When she talks, it appears that she talks only to herself, or to the dead who either cannot or will not respond. The scars of mental trauma and anguish are apparent.

So, if Alva is not alone, who is the mysterious partner in this waltz? The sparse credits at the beginning of Mark Cousins’ arresting drama tell us immediately; starring alongside Neneh Cherry is the City of Stockholm itself.

Stockholm, My Love is an 85-minute journey through the soul of a city, and through the soul of one of its children, in this case respected architect Alva Achebe. Alva is due to give a talk today, for an invited audience of fellow architects, offering us a brief glimpse into a successful and accomplished life; a life which has, quite literally, been instrumental in the construction and evolution of a city so dear to Alva.

Alva’s journey is arcing, stylised, beautiful, and full of intimate encounters with seemingly insignificant components of the greater whole of Stockholm. We are presented with a spider strolling along a tree-lined path; with the locked door and tiny window of St Mark’s church in Bjornhagen; with the creaking of ships’ hulls in the harbor. This is no Lonely Planet guide to the Swedish capital; this is an elegant dissection of the emotional and, in some senses, spiritual life of the city. This is the city, not as a physical location, but as an organism, as a sentient being, as a character in an ever unfolding drama.

This is familiar thematic territory for director and co-writer Mark Cousins. In 2015, I Am Belfast was released; a “city symphony” which involved a meditative exploration of Cousins’ own hometown in Ulster. However, while the sense of connecting intimately with a city or place – of developing a unique experience of somewhere already familiar to us – has been carried over into Stockholm, My Love, Cousins’ latest film represents his first foray into fiction.

There is a fictional narrative to Stockholm, My Love, albeit a Spartan, skeletal one. Today, Alva knows she must deliver her talk, but depression has taken its hold on her and she cannot face this task. Instead, she wanders, ruminating as she goes on a momentous incident in her recent past. This incident – which molded her own life and took away that of another – is the source of her depression, her pessimistic philosophy, and has led her to disconnect from life, from love, and from a city she once held close to her heart.

Ultimately, though, this is not a film driven by narrative. Those in search of dramatic tension, complex plotting, and endless twists and turns are advised to seek these elsewhere. Instead, Cousins’ has given us a work focussed on beauty and aesthetics, and on the depth of feeling and emotion which can be found in the smallest piece of a landscape. This is a film of detail – a film in which nothing goes unexamined, and layer upon layer of meaning and significance is built up and presented to the audience. The result is curiously satisfying.

This success, in part, is thanks to Neneh Cherry, who shares the lens with the dark mystery of Stockholm; her real life hometown.

Stockholm, My Love is the 52-year-old’s acting debut, and comes deep into an artistic career that has, up until now, been synonymous solely with the musical side of things. It would be incorrect to describe Cherry’s performance as an acting tour de force – and perhaps the R’n’B star would have found herself a little out of her depth navigating a more complex narrative structure – but within the frame of the film, the disconnected poignancy of her delivery works.

Of course, Mark Cousins’ directing cannot be ignored, and his unique visual style contributes to the complete feel of this charming work. This is the act filmmaking as composition; Cousins is bringing together a range of disparate elements, harmonising them, and arranging them into deliberately symphonic patterns. Alva speaks in English, Alva speaks in Swedish, Alva sings in English, Alva speaks with her deceased father, Alva projects into the lives of the passersby she sees, Alva fixates on discarded oranges in the street, on concepts as arbitrary as blame and culpability, Alva weighs up the physical form of her own happiness; each piece builds upon that which went before, growing and swelling like music as we follow Alva across her physical and psychological landscapes.

There are duff notes, however. The film’s power depends greatly upon the strength of its symbolism, and the resonance of the trail of visual hints, clues and cues it lays down for its audience. There are points within the narrative when, unfortunately, these visuals groan under the weight of the significance foisted upon them.

A tree branch, cut loose, teeters perilously above the grey seawater; alone and vulnerable. The frame lingers on forlorn, discarded objects in the street; isolated and forgotten like our heroine herself. Alva pauses and stands with one foot on either side of a fissure in a bridge, as the camera repeatedly probes into the depths; a damaged, fractured society, and a woman in danger of slipping through the cracks.

Great points, sure, but each could have been conveyed with a little more subtlety.

On the whole, though, both Cousins and Cherry can chalk Stockholm, My Love up as a triumph. I share their love of the Swedish capital – although perhaps not their profound emotional connection with it – and gaining this intimate perspective was fascinating. In a broader sense, Cousins’ work explores a more meaningful and personal engagement with the physicality of place, which, in a time so characterised by jingoism and nationalistic bombast, is undoubtedly a positive step.

The city; so often a figure of ugliness or something deemed worth escaping from, is reimagined in Stockholm, My Love. It is beautiful – not romanticised as a backdrop or as a piece of stage scenery – but instead as something organic, as something growing and breathing and staining us indelibly with its influence. Perhaps we should spend more time appreciating our own cities in this way; who knows what we might find?

RATING 6 / 10