Review: Under the Tree

Published

Credit: Allstar/Magnolia Pictures

Manon Haag
Deputy Culture Editor – Film & TV

“It is a jubilant watch, should you be willing to do the work to unlock its beauty and wit.”

There is no denying Iceland’s cool factor. The country has been featured on every travel blog and countless Instagram feeds in the past few months and it seems Iceland is now also trending in film festivals. Iceland’s Oscars 2018 entry Under the Tree appeared at Venice, Toronto and Valladolid amongst other places and critics love it. It is now playing at the Glasgow Film Theatre and I rushed to see it with great anticipation of what the coolest nation on Earth had to offer.

Under the Tree is very slow to start. I do not mean that its pace is dragging, rather that the point of the whole thing takes a while to come into sight. Agnes throws the father of her child, Atli, out of their house for masturbating to old sex tapes made with another woman. Meanwhile, Atli’s parents, Inga and Balvin, enter a seemingly futile feud with their neighbours over an overgrown tree in their back garden. So far, we are not exactly talking about anything remotely cool in contemporary film-making. It’s only about a third into the film that I realised something was going on. Most dialogues and situations had that passé arthouse suburbia realism to them. You know the one I am talking about; with their lingering shots of housewives preparing Nespresso coffee cups and silent husbands brooding in their garage turned workshops. Under the Tree has all of that. But it also has an overly dramatic musical score and unsettling camera angles which intrude into a fairly boring depiction of middle-class domesticity. The mention of a missing – probably dead – half brother didn’t really get me off my seat, but dramatic shots of the overgrown tree in the back garden caught my eye.

I started fishing for details. And if you are willing to do the same, Under the Tree has some great things in store for you. It is a jubilant watch, should you be willing to do the work to unlock its beauty and wit. Under the Tree is a dark comedy playing a dangerous game. Strong aesthetic choices and a string of excellent narrative twists turn Under the Tree from old-fashioned arthouse forgettable to intellectually truculent dark comedy of domestic extremes. Yet, it is so parsimonious in its intentions that it consistently almost misses the mark before magically pulling you back in and stealing a laugh or a gasp. Just when you think the film accomplishes too little, one moment of grace erases its weaknesses; when you think it pushes things too far, it works twice as hard to convince you that you can still change your mind about it. And I like to believe that rather than chance, this power of attraction is a testimony to writer and director Hafsteinn Gunnar Sigurdsson’s talent. Provided you are willing to trust him with two hours of your time, you will experience a most Icelandic film of that brand extremely dark humour only Scandi artists master with such subtlety.

Under the Tree is currently playing at Glasgow Film Theatre.