Review: 'Lamb' (2021) Dir. Valdimar Jóhannsson
This psychological drama, natively known as Dýrið, is penned by director Valdimar Jóhannsson and poet/lyricist Sjón, has already become the most successful Icelandic film internationally..
Sheep farmers María (Rapace) and Ingvar (Guðnason) live an isolated life in the Icelandic countryside who put all their efforts into their farm and lifestyle, keeping themselves to themselves.
The arrival of a new-born lamb changes their perceptions however, and they opt to care for the lamb who suffers from a rather unique disfigurement. The lamb offers them a focus to dote on, to care for and to love.
But María is more protective of the lamb as it grows, warding of anyone - or anything - that comes close and questions their choice. The peace they seek doesn't last for long, when drastic action must be taken to protect all they long for...
Dýrið translates as "the animal" and is the native title for this psychological horror/drama. Picked up for international distribution by A24, and with a title as simple and evocative as Lamb, it's clear this isn't going to be a run of the mill farming story. And as always with foreign films, subtitles is the way to go so you can immerse yourself in the natural dialect of these stories.
Set in the gorgeous but often eerie peaceful Icelandic countryside, framed by snow-capped mountains, bubbling brooks and rolling fog, this itself conjures up a sense of isolation mixed with natural beauty. Our two leads, the brilliant Noomi Rapace and Hilmir Snær Guðnason, are two loving but haunted farmers who have clearly hiding something beyond their reflective gazes and staccato dialogue with each other. Yet there's no hint of malice or menace; they talk quietly over dinner, watch TV together and go about their daily work as a team. They are two talented actors who have the right balance and normalcy to convey ordinary folk in a rather extraordinary situation, but who you can fully believe are 100% invested and immersing themselves in the roles, the environments and emotions needed.
The pacing is perfect, with nothing rushed or glossed over. So much is relayed to viewers visually and audibly. Even with the little dialogue on offer, it works more when the diegetic noise takes over.
Split into chapters, it's during the opening of number two that things start to really develop following a very brooding number one. We get all we need to know from what we see on screen and see in the eyes of our leads. It's a very different style of horror that comes to light; unsettling but also fascinating to explore how it affects those we are with on this journey and why. It's the simplicity that lends the biggest moments of drama and (provoked?) tension when you feel something is coming but don't know what, or why. And there's no jump-scare in sight for something classed as a horror which is wonderfully refreshing.
It's not a horror in terms of ghosts and goblins and killings, but rather more symbolic, folk-lore, humane horror. There is grief and sacrifice, irrational thought and desperation as a family, and while it's all very natural and believable, the core theme is slowly heating more and more as the story progresses, that you know it's going to boil over at the end. Just how it does is nothing but tragic and greatly effective due to the establishment of core characters and relationships.
And it's safe to say the Lamb - Ada - of the story is not to be underestimated in her importance and meaning.
Valdimar Jóhannsson makes his feature debut as director here, but has worked in many Hollywood films such as The Secret Life of Walter Mitty and Rogue One, even TV such as Game of Thrones. He knows how to frame a shot, to create atmosphere and use technical tricks to conjure up emotion. Couple this know-how with a score by Þórarinn Guðnason and cinematography by Eli Arenson, and a story co-written by acclaimed lyricist and poet Sjón, and it almost becomes a modern-day fable / folk-lore story unfurling before our eyes and ears.
The message of Lamb is summed up perfectly in a dialogue exchange when two people are faced with an extraordinary situation.
"What the fuck is this?"
Original and bold in its story, but grounded and humane in it's message. 'Lamb' is eerie, beautifully shot and equally heart-warming and heart-breaking in exploring how to deal with both happiness and grief.
'Lamb' is a co-production between Go to Sheep, Boom Films, Black Spark Prods., Madants/NEM Corp, Film i Väst, Chimney Sweden, Chimney Poland and Rabbit Hole Prods.