Under The Tree. Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures.
Iceland’s most renowned literary achievement is Njal’s Saga, which rightly rates up there with Homer, Ovid, Shakespeare, and Dostoevsky. Some scholars consider this anonymously written historical reflection on that island’s culture, as the looming literary work of the Middle Ages. However, what if Iceland has now given us another monumental work of literary arts, assuming you consider film to be within the realm of the literary (as many do anymore)? And most definitely, we can be sure that the screenwriters of this contemporary reflection of that island’s culture, Under the Tree, actually are clearly exceptional. They are Huldar Breidfjord and Hafsteinn Gunnar Sigurdsson, and their reflection is the inverse of Njal’s Saga, as it is penetratingly domestic, as opposed to epic, in essence. But boy does it ever take us on a journey into the caverns of the human psyche like few films of recent decades.
Under the Tree, set in a Reykjavik suburb, is rooted in the character of Inga (a magnetically gripping Edda Bjorgvinsdottir), a woman in her 60s who struggles with the unexplained death of one of her sons and what seems to her to be a potentially permanent detachment from her adorable little granddaughter. This is because her son Atli (Steinthor Hroar Steinthorsson) cheated on his wife, Agnes (Lara Johanna Jonsdottir), who vehemently shields him from interaction with their child because of that. Steinthorsson brilliantly evokes contemporary man’s inability to redefine his masculinity in order to contend with the new gender order. Jonsdottir captures in turn, the hazy and perhaps, ultimately self-destructive way some women are redefining their gender role. Under the Tree rivets us to deeper examine not whether adultery is right or wrong, but how feverish, as opposed to level-headed reactions to it, can and do exacerbate anguish over and accelerate even uglier consequences to, an already painful problem.
Hot-button issues of paternal custody rights and grandparents’ rights are baked right into this multilayered story. Inga, from the get-go, is itching for a fight with her younger neighbors. They ratchet up pressure on the older grieving couple to cut down their big beautiful shady tree. The neighbor couple, played vividly with a narcissistic edge by Thorsteinn Bachmann and Selma Bjornsdottir, seriously misreads how their requests shake the identity of the older couple, especially Inga. The notion of compromise or small sacrifice is out of the question on both sides. Tensions further increase because Atli, having his mother’s feisty nature, intrudes on his daughter’s nursery school day to take her on an unscheduled outing. They miss each other horribly. Indeed, cold legalistic imperatives cannot cut down the natural loving bond between a father and his child.
All the men in Under the Tree are heavily influenced by various women. Moreover, the women seem to be at odds with each other because of extremely different core values. The matriarchal cohesion that Michael Moore idealizes about Iceland in his film, Where to Invade Next, is nowhere in evidence in Under the Trees. Inga may have disdain for her living son’s adultery, but she abhors divorce and the disunification of the traditional family unit. In one scene, a sensuous younger couple that often tends to get too loud while having sex is confronted by neighbors tired of hearing their moans. The range of attitudes of the women present in the co-op meeting situation is fascinating—from careless, to understandably frustrated, to outraged. As with another great Scandinavian film maestro, Ingmar Bergman, we are impelled to muse over the subtext.
However, a man gives a supreme performance that conveys the anguish of long sufferance. The role of the long suffering person, quite often traditionally a woman (Christianity’s Mother Mary springs to mind), is fulfilled in Under the Tree by Inga’s husband and Atli’s father, Baldvin, by a devastating Sigurdur Sigurjonsson. He’s a man pathetically at the effect of the broken relationships all around him. Contrast how American audiences have become accustomed to Tommy Lee Jones’s continual rehash in various films of that conceit, with its fixed facial expression. Thankfully, Sigurjonsson reveals tremendous scope within the role as he suffers grief over a son’s death, nobly tries to patch things up as a go-between for various egos, poignantly seeks solace by singing in a men’s choir, and is made to face the proverbial music of a web of deranged relationships that spin wildly and breathtakingly beyond repair.
An element within the genius of the script and the performances as guided by co-writer Sigurdsson, also the film’s director, is that though we are given a distinct view of how today’s Icelandic society is set up, we may not come to any ultimate final conclusion about the wrongness or rightness of the characters by the time we reach the end of the film. Even then, many thoughtful viewers will be torn.
And as if human manipulation isn’t enough, Under the Tree also weaves the presence and movement of pets into the web of incendiary human states of mind. They’re not just there to look cute, though they definitely are. They serve a philosophical purpose and are darling counterpoints to the harrowing human breakdown.
In reality, some of Iceland’s social set up, as depicted in Under the Tree, is unsettling in its similarity to our own in the United States, Canada, and the European Union where privacy, paternal, and property rights are known to be intruded upon in ways that a critical mass of their societies have come to feel are unconstitutional, if not tyrannical. Yet Under the Tree keeps us riveted to human nature as much, if not more, than the social contract. That said, one cannot help but reflect on that contract while watching the film and where it may be leading us.
Can Under the Tree even be compared to Njal’s Saga? Of course, it’s far, far too early to say. But if put within the context of the gold standard of staggering screenplays in the century-plus of cinema’s existence: for example, Rules of the Game, All About Eve, Nicholas and Alexandra, and Fanny and Alexander—Under the Tree is right up there. And no special effects needed, thank you very much. It stands on great acting, great direction, beguilingly intimate cinematography (Monika Lenczewska) and editing (Kristjan Loomfjord). Daniel Bjarnason’s music enhances the intense interaction with fitting subtlety.
Tellingly, Under the Tree was Iceland’s entry for last year’s Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film but was not nominated. Nor were Bjorgvinsdottir and Sigurjonsson, both of whose portrayals are Oscar-caliber.
Note: Iceland is not a member of the European Union (EU) but is considered to be a part of what is called the European Economic Area.
Under the Tree