The 2018 Volvo Scandinavian Film Festival returns to Brisbane with a solid programme featuring twenty-one of the finest productions to come out of Sweden, Denmark, Norway, Finland and Iceland last year.
While charting across-the-fence warfare between feuding neighbours has long been a popular genre of cinema, it comes as a surprise that Icelandic director Hafsteinn Gunnar Sigurdsson has packed so much emotional complexity into this grisly black comedy – his third feature. Beginning with the hushed light that dominates cinematographer Monika Lenczewska’s widescreen approach, it doesn’t take long for Sigurdsson to ratchet up the tension and dispel any notion that things are normal in this idyllic suburban enclave – where rows of identical houses are squared on manicured lawns.
We are first introduced to Atli [Steinþór Hróar Steinþórsson] and Agnes [Lára Jóhanna Jónsdóttir]. Inside their cookie-cutter home, life appears as dull and muted as the light outside. Their story begins with Agnes finding Atli watching a self-recorded porno of himself and an old girlfriend. Agnes immediately sends Atli packing and without a better option, he reluctantly crashes at his parents’ house, seemingly more wounded than remorseful. But his mild-mannered father Baldvin and seething mother Inga have their own domestic problems: An escalating dispute with their next-door neighbours – Konrad [Þorsteinn Bachmann] and his younger wife Eybjorg [Selma Björnsdóttir] over a tree that casts a shadow across their yard.
You see the central characters slowly turn from aggrieved neighbours to sociopathic rivals, particularly Inga [Edda Björgvinsdóttir], whose corrosive exchanges with Eybjorg become increasingly venomous and whose behaviour ultimately turns evil.
In this respect, the cast is exceptional, with each actor contributing just the right amount of madness to the growing turmoil. The clearly unstable Inga is in her element taking revenge on her hapless neighbours and while Baldvin is reluctant to get involved, his attitude changes when his tyres are slashed.
Sigurdsson’s directorship makes the most of Huldar Breiðfjörðs well-crafted script and while Daníel Bjarnason’s score is as sparse and dark as the sky outside it sets the tone for this satirical but desolate production right from the start.
Needless to say, this film isn’t a barrel of laughs and the promise of humour is found only through the unhinged actions of its characters and the depressing nature of the film. While not entirely predictable, 'Under The Tree' lacks the suspense of a real drama and too few laughs to call a comedy. Instead, we’re left with the uncomfortable truth that the line between sanity and madness is paper thin and that all of us are capable of emotional cruelty – if pushed far enough.