Review – A neighbourly dispute gives way to darkness in ‘Under the Tree’

Poster for the 2018 Icelandic drama Under the Tree

Genre: Drama
Certificate: 15
UK Release Date: 10th August 2018
Runtime: 89 minutes
Director: Hafsteinn Gunnar Sigurðsson
Writer: Hafsteinn Gunnar Sigurðsson
Starring: Steinþór Hróar Steinþórsson, Lára Jóhanna Jónsdóttir, Edda Björgvinsdóttir, Þorsteinn Bachmann, Sigurður Sigurjónsson
Synopsis: A trivial dispute over an excessively large tree causes an escalating battle of one-upmanship between two sets of neighbours.

 

 

There’s a real trend in the TV world at the moment for ‘Scandi-noir’. It’s a trend epitomised by chilly detective stories in which a lone figure, usually surrounded by blood-stained snow, investigates some horrible goings-on. On the less serious, but equally dark, side of the spectrum comes Under the Tree – an inky black suburban nightmare from Icelandic auteur Hafsteinn Gunnar Sigurðsson. There’s no detective figure at the centre of this one, and very little in the way of blood-stained snow, but it is a descent into the darkness of society and the way deeply held grudges can blossom into something far more dangerous.

Things start with two fairly standard events. Agnes (Lára Jóhanna Jónsdóttir) catches her husband Atli (Steinþór Hróar Steinþórsson) nipping out of the marital bed to enjoy a video of himself in flagrante delicto with another woman. This sends Atli back to his parents, Inga (Edda Björgvinsdóttir) and Baldvin (Sigurður Sigurjónsson), who are in the midst of their own problems. Their divorced next-door neighbour Konrad (Þorsteinn Bachmann) and his younger partner Eybjorg (former Eurovision star Selma Björnsdóttir) have complained about the large tree in their back garden and demanded it be cut down. Soon, tyres are slashed and garden gnomes smashed, as the nuisance neighbours get petty, but things take a turn for the sinister when Inga’s beloved cat goes missing.

The most remarkable thing about Under the Tree is the way in which it nimbly pivots between comedy, drama and tragedy with endless invention. There’s the younger generation, represented by Atli and Agnes, in a very conventional story of marital betrayal and attempted reconciliation but, at the same time, those who are older show that they’re certainly not wiser as their petty disagreement spirals into a genuinely unsettling and ultimately violent clash between neighbours. Sigurðsson’s movie is interested in depicting the ridiculousness of this generational gap, as the explosive youngsters move towards a solution, while the grown adults just drift further apart.

Sigurðsson’s unique dynamic benefits from a talented ensemble of terrific performers. The key role is played by stand-up comedian Edda Björgvinsdóttir as the sardonic, serious Inga. She refers to her neighbour’s much younger wife as simply “cycling bitch” and is at the centre of all of the movie’s darkest moments. Her performance is straight as an arrow for the whole story and there’s never even a flicker of remorse behind her dead eyes as the dispute fills an empty gap in her bland home life. Her useless husband is consistently shoved to the background as she pursues mayhem at all costs.

Under the Tree seems to take real, infectious delight in twisting the knife and plunging the audience deeper and deeper into its nightmarish suburbia. Whether it’s a hideously inappropriate meeting of residents at a block of flats or an act of pure, malevolent evil on the part of one of the characters, Sigurðsson constantly surprises and enthrals with the level of darkness he forces on his audience. After a genuinely horrifying finale, he delivers a quietly unsettling final shot that serves as a gut punch of absolute futility, highlighting the needless conflict that has come before to chilling effect.

 

Pop or Poop?

Rating: Pop!

In a defiantly cold blast of Icelandic air, Hafsteinn Gunnar Sigurðsson has delivered a dark nightmare of surprisingly comedic proportions with Under the Tree. It’s a consistently funny and often deeply troubling depiction of lives spinning out of control over the most mundane of difficulties, lensed with a constant hue of dismal, grey chill.

Edda Björgvinsdóttir is the standout member of a deeply impressive ensemble, tying the whole movie together with her defiant single-mindedness and seemingly sociopathic pursuit of proving her own beliefs.

 

Do you agree with my review? Let me know in the comments section.

Under the Tree will be released in UK cinemas nationwide on August 10.

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