Lamb. MA15+, 106 minutes. Four stars
Little things loom large in this intriguing new feature from Iceland. The land of fire and ice is a powerful presence as both location and ultimately, a walk-on character.
It is set in a wide, treeless valley ringed by monumental mountains sweeping into the distance. An attractive, red-roofed sheep farm in the middle distance is run by a young couple who seem happy together but give little away. They have been dealt a blow of some sort. Initially, with little for the viewer to go on from their simple existence, details like the name on a record sleeve and an indecipherable photograph on their fridge assume telling significance, for little good reason.
We scratch our heads and meditate on the soundtrack, graced with horror notes. The style of cinematography from Eli Arenson is also replete with suggestion, in the white-out at the start in which a herd of horses are spooked, and other suggestive establishing shots. Around the farm, the watchful sheepdog looks cowed and wary, and the sheep in their stalls are not their dependably placid selves.
The tiny, isolated farm and its flock are alone, but not entirely. There is a distinct possibility that a malevolent presence is stalking, observing and even penetrating their lives. Only the establishment's tabby cat seems to carry on regardless, unperturbed.
As Radio Reykjavik announces Christmas and the church bells peel frantically, the Christian spirit may be under threat from something dark and unfathomable that is out there, or is perhaps already in the inner sanctum.
The taciturn young couple, Maria (Noomi Rapace, unforgettable in the original, Swedish-language Girl with the Dragon Tattoo films) and Ingvar (Hilmir Snaer Gudnason), have little to say beyond the practical, though Maria is at least open to other ideas. Like the topic of time travel that she introduces one night over a basic meat and potatoes dinner. Travel into the future or back into the past might be possible, we may be free to choose where to go.
The audience isn't spared some of the raw facts of rural life, like the earmarking of lambs. In the scenes in which we witness Maria helping ewes deliver, few squeamish details are elided as she pulls the quivering lambs from their mother's bodies. After a few newborns are suckling and wobbling around happily, the cinematography suddenly gets coy and looks away.
It's a strategy not a million miles away from Roman Polanski's maddeningly brilliant non-disclosure in his horror classic Rosemary's Baby, in which he didn't divulge the riveting secret until the final frames around the bassinet.
After one of the ewes gives birth to a creature as the camera looks away, Maria swiftly swaddles it in a blanket and pops it into an improvised cradle. A few muffled bleats give the game away, but only in part.
Ingvar's brother visits. The arrival of Petur (Bjorn Hlynur Haraldsson), a city type who is unceremoniously dumped in the nearby countryside by a carload of friends or acquaintances, might herald an outsider perspective on these strange events. Once I'd reassured myself that Petur was in fact a separate character, and not Ingvar's Haraldsson playing his twin, the revelations still didn't flow. Then it is finally revealed that Maria and Ingvar's adopted child is a hybrid. They name her Ada.
As it becomes increasingly apparent that both the adoption of the hybrid child and the violent act that was involved in achieving it are a flagrant riposte to natural laws, the sense of dread is heightened. However, the filmmakers do use restraint and resist the lure of horror tropes, with most of the action taking place in daylight.
When it arrives, the personification of an avenging nature is powerful, more than enough to strike terror in the heart of miscreants who disrespect nature.
Constructed like a fable in three chapters, Lamb is the first feature from Icelandic director Valdimar Johannsson, who collaborated on the screenplay with Sjon, novelist, lyricist, and frequent collaborator with the singer Bjork. Although the filmmakers say they didn't draw on Icelandic myths and legends, Lamb has the look and feel of folklore. It often seems that the vision of Icelandic creatives is closely connected with the glaciated, sparsely populated island on which they live and so it is with this film too.