The Song of Sway Lake: A Review

Aditya Sarangi Reviews the Lush New Drama by Award-Winning Director Ari Gold

When words fail there is music, and when music fails there is silence. These words, spoken in the background of The Song of Sway Lake, help establish the tranquility of Director Ari Gold’s second feature film.  The setting is serene: jazz and classical music accompany breathtaking images of the Adirondack mountains. For these reasons and more, The Song of Sway Lake can be called a stunning film, in its sounds, silences, and performances.

Robert Sheehan and Mary Beth Peil in The Song of Sway Lake

Teenager Ollie Sway (Rory Culkin) is on a mission to steal a very rare 78’ record from his family’s estate in the Sway Lake region of New York. His father, a collector, recently committed suicide. Ollie is aided by Nikolai (Robert Sheehan), a Russian immigrant who is attempting to get his life back on track. Everything goes as planned: Ollie and Nikolai ransack the house, indulging in various acts of teenage raucousness. But, things take a significant turn when Charlie Sway (Mary Beth Peil), the family matriarch and current owner of the Sway estate, arrives.  It is where these three characters intersect, physically and emotionally, that the film provides its best exploration of personal desire and longing of the past.

Elizabeth Pena also co-stars in The Song of Sway Lake

Ollie, though distant and laid back, is haunted by his father, who wants him to find the record. This ambition is complicated when he falls in love with a girl named Isadora (Isabelle McNally). The relationship between Charlie and Ollie, which is bitter at times, also figures prominently. Conflicts between the two continue throughout the film.

Nikolai, the Casanova type, has a bombastic sense of self. He is looking for the fabled America of an immigrant’s imagination, one he believes he has found in connection with the Sway family. This conventionally masculine man (interested in the army, boats, and outdoors activities) becomes enchanted by the aging matriarch, Charlie, who is Ollie’s grandmother. He embraces her aristocratic behavior and is nearly obsessive about studying and pleasing her. He is also mesmerized by the diaries and photographs of Hal Sway (Charlie’s war-hero husband). The desire within him to be like Captain Hal Sway becomes palpable as the movie advances. He has stored all the objects associated with Charlie (photographs, jewelry, her husband’s cap, etc.) in a drawer. The contrasts between Ollie and Nikolai are beautifully wrought: Ollie disdains everything related to his lineage, while Nikolai wants to be in Ollie’s place.

Mary Beth Peil is fantastic in the role of Charlie, whose opulent charm radiates through vacillating moods—sometimes warm and other times cold. Her facial expressions and body language say more than can be communicated in dialogue. As Charlie sits writing replies to the condolence letters she’s received on the death of her son, she tells Nikolai, “I do not cry…My son did what he did. Timmy cursed this place…”

The film explores the complexity of family relationships, notably of fathers and sons, through multiple vantage points and across time. It connects multi-generations of Sways and bring in Nikolai too. In one of the more poignant moments of the film, Ollie asks his father advice (through a dream) on selecting music to plan for Isadora. His father answers, “What do ugly fellows like us know about love?” The deceased father’s self-loathing and gloom weighs heavily on Ollie. Later Ollie asks his father how he felt so much of a record he’d never listened to (the album has not been opened to retain its value). “It’s like love, his father says, “Better leave it untouched.” With the end of each dream, Ollie feels a greater burden heaved upon his chest—he is literally suffocating by the burden of his lineage.

Song of the Sway Lake is a poignant film that will appeal to fans of quiet, breathtaking dramas. It is a movie where time does seem to stand still, a deep character study—revealing the interior lives and scars of its subjects, layer by layer.

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