Under the Tree
Hafsteinn Gunnar Sigurdsson, director and co-script w/Huldar Breidfjord
Starring: Steinthor Hroar Steinthorsson (Atli), Lara Johanna Jonsdottir (Agnes), Edda Bjorgvinsdottir (Inga), Sigurdur Sigurdursson (Baldvin), Thorsteinn Bachmann (Konrad), Selma Bjornsdottir (Eybjorg)
The Icelandic black comedy, Under the Tree won seven Edda (Iceland’s Oscars) awards including best film, director, actress and actor. It was the country’s nominee for the 2018 foreign film Academy Award, an accolade, although, of course, it lost. Now, it’s being released in Canada, where—let’s face it—the film is unlikely to attract much of an audience. That’s a shame because it’s one of the darkest and funniest films this critic has seen in years.
The film begins with a character making a huge mistake. Unhappy with his life, Atli is caught by his wife Agnes watching what appears to be porn on his computer. Agnes is horrified when she realizes that Atli is actually looking at a home video of him making love to his ex-girlfriend. She immediately kicks him out, forcing Atli to return to his parents, Inga and Baldvin, who live in the suburbs of Reykjavik. It quickly turns out that his family’s next-door neighbours are angry that Inga and Baldvin won’t trim their tree, which is throwing a shadow on their sundeck.
Under the Tree is a comedy about revenge. It is so exquisitely timed that even though few will know the language, the humour is clear and irresistible. While battling over possession of their five-year-old daughter, whom they both adore, Atli and Agnes act out in excessively childish ways. You watch as Atli ignores laws in order to take his daughter out of day care for an afternoon picnic, although he knows that he’ll anger the school, the police and his wife. Agnes finds herself playing the cold angry woman, although it’s clear that she’s much nicer than that.
As the film develops, Atli and Agnes’ situation is gradually replaced in importance by the increasingly tense feud between Atli’s parents and their neighbours. Tires are slashed. A cat disappears. So does a dog. You watch in astonished anticipation as the violence escalates. A terrifying conclusion seems inevitable.
Under the Tree works well because the characters seem so realistic. Throughout the film, it seems plausible that the motley cast of characters will start acting reasonably—but they don’t. Perhaps anger and revenge work best when presented humorously. In any case, this is one Icelandic film that is occasionally laugh-out-loud funny. One can only hope that Under the Tree surprises most observers and does well at the Canadian box-office.
Written by Marc Glassman
Adjunct Professor, Ryerson University
Director, Pages UnBound: the festival and series
Editor, POV Magazine
Editor, Montage Magazine
Film Critic, The New Classical FM
Film programmer, Planet in Focus
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