In Iceland, on a dark and stormy night near Christmas… if that sounds like the beginning of a fairytale or nativity play, prepare for Lamb, which mixes fairytale fantasticality with a bit of Christian iconography to dark Nordic effect… eventually.
It’s all a bit weird and primeval, in other words, but things get off to a rather Martha Stewart-y opening as director Valdimar Jóhannsson sets his scene. A solitary house out in the Icelandic back of beyond, rustically chic, where jumper-wearing couple Ingvar (Hilmir Snær Guðnason) and Maria (Noomi Rapace) farm by day and share evenings together in companionable silence.
They’re happy. Maybe. Something about the way Jóhannsson keeps cutting away to the looks in the couple’s animals’ eyes – the sheep, the sheepdog, the cat – suggests all might not be quite right. Is the silence easygoing, or do Ingvar and Maria just have nothing to say to each other? And after a few more minutes reinforcing the toilsome humdrum of it all – shots of Maria hauling newborn lambs out of the back end of ewes – Jóhannsson and his co-writer Sjón drop the narrative bomb.
One of the lambs is a bit different from the others. Without giving the entire plot away (though the trailer and publicity imagery don’t hold back), Maria and Ingvar take it indoors and proceed to look after it more like you would a baby human than a baby sheep. I will say no more, except to point out that the director has a background doing special effects works (on films like Rogue One and Prometheus) and they do get wheeled out to good effect once the lamb is a little older and we’ve been given an eyeful of what exactly makes this one a bit different from the rest. About 37 minutes in, if you’re feeling twitchy, and you might be.
Because… otherwise things more or less go back to the way they were before. Stark landscape framed by a static camera, the elements (snow, fog) crowding in, the mountains stern in the distance, Þórarinn Guðnason’s lovely soundtrack swelling with stealthy emotion here and there, the rhythm of daily work on the farm, by night a bit of TV and some reading.
Enter Ingvar’s wayward brother Pétur (Björn Hlynur Haraldsson) to shake things up a bit, and add a bit of love-triangle complexity to what was, let’s face it, getting a touch dull. It’s around this point that Maria, sick of the incessant bleating of the mother of the lamb she’s got indoors, does something rather shocking, which will pay back spectacularly towards the end as the film finally, decisively, shifts away from the domestic into something straight from an Icelandic saga.
They are uneasy bedfellows these distinct genres. In fact they fight like kittens in a sack. One has to keep its feet on the ground, the other has been given permission to fly.
This unusual, interesting film can perhaps be bracketed alongside another one from Iceland, Benedikt Erlingsson’s Of Horses and Men. It asks a similar question – are human beings best seen as the only dweller in a single-species realm or as part of a wider animal ecosystem? Lamb’s original Icelandic title is Dyrid, which translates as The Animal, or The Beast (says Google Translate). Which is a much more ambiguous title than Lamb. Who’s the beast here, especially once Maria gets into fiercely maternal mode?
There’s a touch of the transgressive fairytale, too, a genre that seems to have been stealthily on the move in Nordic territories since 2010’s Trollhunter. See also Aleksander Nordaas’s dark and vastly underrated fairy tale Thale, or the quirky and unusual Swedish/Danish trolls-are-us movie Gräns.
Talking of the human/animal interface, Noomi Rapace (fluent in Icelandic thanks to having spent a few years there as a child) is a charismatic, can’t-take-your-eyes-off-her marvel as Maria, and both Gu∂nason and Haraldsson are entirely plausible as red-blooded brothers with roots deep in the cold Icelandic earth.
Lamb is a lot more subtle than at first appears. Keep your eyes on the animals.
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© Steve Morrissey 2021