What is this Icelandic film all about?
As I sit down to write this review, the last day of the 65th BFI London Film Festival is drawing to a close. A celebration and spotlight for some of the best and brightest in modern cinema, it’s been a delight to check out works of art that might’ve otherwise flown under my largely ignorant radar. But of all the films I watched, the one that’s stuck the most is Lamb (Dýriðir in its native Icelandic).
The directorial debut of Icelandic filmmaker Valdimar Jóhannsson, it’s already built up quite a lot of buzz since it first premiered at Cannes earlier this year. Before you read too far ahead, this review will touch on some light spoilers, but nothing too egregious as this is a story that really benefits from a blind perspective. You have been warned!
Lamb stars Noomi Rapace and Hilmir Snær Guðnason as María and Ingvar, a childless couple living and working on a remote sheep farm in the middle of the Icelandic wilderness. Although they’re relatively content with their daily routine, it’s made clear that they’re dealing with some underlying sense of grief, and seem to be functioning on some unconscious level of autopilot.
That is until one day, a sheep gives birth to a very unusual progeny. Without uttering a word, the gobsmacked couple agree to raise the newborn as their own daughter. Despite the nature of the child being left intentionally vague in the movie’s marketing, it’s fairly easy to guess what it is.
What follows is the developing relationship of the new family over an underdetermined, yet clearly quite brief period of time. Presented in chapters, we see them balance work and family life, a visit from Ingvar’s brother and enjoy a drink or two while watching the handball on TV. This description makes everything sound rather idyllic, almost as if it were an Icelandic adaptation of The Good Life. But if you dropped Felicity Kendall in this absurd story, she’d probably have an aneurysm. It’s far more bizarre than anything else I’ve seen so far in 2021.
The best way I can describe Lamb is as a realist fairytale. It presents the fantastical – borderline magical – in stark relief to the very real themes of loss, dominion of nature and family strife. Yet thanks to the excellent, understated performances of Rapace and Guðnason, the narrative never descends into outright farce. Instead, it builds this growing sense of unease and discomfort among the audience; the distortion of our understanding of reality making it unpleasantly hard to predict what’s coming next.
This is augmented by the rugged setting. Lingering shots of the barren landscape could’ve been pulled from any fantasy movie, and the imposing peaks in the horizon give the impression that the farm is cut off from the rest of the world. A Nordic answer to the Bermuda Triangle.
But what’s perhaps most effective is the portrayal of the animals throughout the film. A combination of animatronics, VFX, and practical animals evokes such personality and emotion, they become much more than extensions of the scenery. Instead, the countless sheep (I tried, fell asleep), pet dog and cat all become pivotal characters. I felt genuine pain in the bleating of the child’s birth mother as she yearns for the daughter that was taken from her.
There’s an argument to be made that each creature acts as an agent of the collective ‘consciousness’ of nature. As the human couple continue to seemingly pervert the established order of things, the stoic gaze of their stock becomes more damning. It’s hard to embellish much more without diving into full blown spoiler territory, but suffice to say you’ll never look at a sheep the same way again.
But the fact I’ve had to be so ambiguous throughout this review might actually be one of it’s biggest downfalls. It tries to do too much within its already pretty bloated runtime, and even if I were to describe the events beat for beat (bleat for bleat?), it’d probably still come across as confusing and convoluted. A lot of the family plot threads, particularly those involving Ingvar’s brother ‘Uncle’ Pétur, seem inconsequential to the wider narrative, and instead feel bolted on for the sake of melodrama. This in itself isn’t overtly offensive, but in a picture that strives for minimalism, it throws off the pacing and weakens the sum of its parts.
With all that being said, this is still a film I would absolutely recommend seeking out. Seeing relatable trauma and experiences explored through the lens of the absurd provides a potent combination of tension, pathos and black comedy that’ll keep you fidgeting in your seat throughout. Sure, it could’ve perhaps used another trip to the cutting room, but it remains the film I think of most out of the BFI London Film Festival’s esteemed program, and that’s no mean feat.
Lamb will have a wider UK release from 10th December 2021.
Directed by: Valdimar Jóhannsson
Starring: Noomi Rapace, Hilmir Snær Guðnason, and Björn Hlynur Haraldsson.
Runtime: 1 hour 46 minutes