Tuesday, December 14, 2021

Lamb – a horrifyingly cute ovine tale from Iceland (QFT until 16 December)

Perhaps there’s an underground scene of humdrum Icelandic films, but certainly the ones that make it to the screens of Belfast don’t disappoint. Between the rugged landscapes and the quirky sense of what’s normal, their filmmakers concoct tales of the unexpected. Woman at War, my favourite from the 2019 Belfast Film Festival, was a crazy example of the finest.

Despite its name, Lamb is nothing like another sheepish Icelandic tale Rams. Instead of the frosty relationship between two bachelor brothers, Lamb drops in on the frosty relationship between a couple living on a remote sheep farm. There’s a lot of sorrow, little affection, and precious few words between María and Ingvar.

Much is hinted at, little needs to be said, and even less is spoken in Lamb. The opening sequence, with a spirit singling out a single ewe in the barn, followed by Christmas music on the radio is a hint at what will follow.

When the two farmers help birth a lambchild out in the sheep shed, their lives start to defrost. Little Ada is much loved and completes their broken family. But an upset ewe, the arrival of Ingvar’s brother, not to mention the sinister presence that the farmyard animals can detect, threaten the unconventional nuclear family. To what lengths will a parent go to protect their offspring?

Noomi Rapace gives María a fierce on-screen intensity – at once lonely, sorrowful and expectant – while, opposite her, Hilmir Snær Guðnason copes with his inner emptiness by throwing himself at the rhythm of work on the farm. Björn Hlynur Haraldsson’s appearance as Uncle Pétur mirrors many of the audience reactions to the gradual revelation about Ada’s form, with sideways glances, denial, and then signs of love for the wain. However, the enduring flame that Pétur’s burns for his sister-in-law underscores the more menacing aspects of his disturbed personality.

Lamb combines a few moments of surreal comedy with acres of fantasy and borrows heavily from horror. The audience are made to laugh, feel warm and fuzzy at cuteness, admire an Equity card-carrying cat, and marvel at this unexpected but worthy addition to the list of Christmas movies. The locked-off camerawork places the characters against the stunning scenery and adds to the sense of suspense. The close-up shots of sheeps’ faces make me want to visit an open farm and take portraits of their flock.

Metaphorical? Magic realism? Lamb will leave you with a myriad of possible explanations for its 106 minutes of ovine storytelling. It’s a great feature directorial debut for Valdimar Jóhannsson. An Icelandic tale to warm your heart or make your blood run cold. Ewe You decide. Screening at the Queen’s Film Theatre until Thursday 16 December

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