Thank You Lamb
Directed by Valdimar Jóhannsson
Mubi Blu Ray Zone B
Lamb is an absolutely stunning, modern folk horror film set in Iceland. I wish I’d seen it at the end of last year when it was released in UK cinemas (despite there being a deadly pandemic on) because this would easily taken my number two spot for films of the year, second only to Pig (reviewed here). This would have been extra pleasing to me, to have my top two films listed as being single nouns describing animals.
The film stars the always incredible Noomi Rapace (the original girl with the dragon tattoo) and Hilmir Snær Guðnason as a childless couple, Maria and Ingvar, who work their small, isolated sheep farm in Iceland. During the opening scene, something comes to visit the sheep one night and, later on, as the couple are helping birth a lamb, the offspring comes out as something slightly unusual, which I won’t reveal to you here. Because of the way the film is shot, it’s not revealed to the audience exactly what is so special about the latest addition to the farm until about 40 minutes or so into the film but, I suspect you can probably take a good guess. Then, after a while, Ingvar’s brother Pétur, played by Björn Hlynur Haraldsson, turns up and the family dynamic is changed a little. And that’s all I’m going to say about the story as, due to the simplicity of the tale, you really have to go in spoiler free (as there’s not much to spoil) but it’s a beautifully shot film with the final ten minutes going exactly where you think they might. This doesn’t, however, take away from the potency of the ending, nor the beautiful way in which those final minutes have been realised. All I will say on this stuff is... the special effects are great.
After a truly sinister opening with a POV shot of something trudging across snowy wastes and worrying the sheep, probably the first thing you will notice is the crisp, deep focus photography. But what really stands out is the director and cinematographer’s apparent obsession with using vertical panels and upright posts etc to constantly split the screen into three. This results in, at least for the first two chapters of the movie (of which, of course, there are three), the audience being constantly bombarded with frames split up like triptych and, quite often, with quite an equal split between the three panels, as the actors either stay in their third of the screen or cross over into another. And even when there’s not a full triptych of vertical splits, there’s often an echo of one when, say, it will cut to a wide open shot of the beautiful landscape and one of the actor’s heads or their body will be filling just a third of the space. It’s an incredibly controlled film in terms of the way the frames are delineated and I really appreciated this, admittedly quite blatant, attention to the look of the shots, I have to say.
It goes without saying, almost, that the three lead actors (maybe four but, I don’t want to get into that here) are all absolutely brilliant in this. They’re also quite naturalistic in their roles... given the subject matter, there’s no room for anyone being a little over the top on this. It all has to be deadpan and natural and the three main protagonists excel at this. Incidentally, I’m told that, although Noomi Rapace was born in Sweden, she grew up from the age of five living in Iceland and that, in fact, this is the first movie for which she’s performed her dialogue in the Icelandic language. So that’s kinda interesting... Noomi as you’ve not hear her before.
The other thing which is interesting about this film is that, while it’s certainly a folk horror movie, it’s not actually scary and that’s because the modus operandi of the storytelling is such that it tries to do something else, I think, instead... and succeeds very well at it. That is to say, it’s totally character based and a lot of the film is you getting to know these people and how they bond together as a unit. However, once the director has you in this frame of mind, there are two scenes which definitely cause a great deal of anxiety. One is where the brother takes another family member into the wilderness armed with a shotgun. I can’t say more about it than that without giving spoilers but, there’s a lot of tension in the sequence and it’s got a beautiful pay off in the next scene, which is quite a delightful resolution. The other time is the ‘big thing’ the film has been building up to ever since the opening of the movie and, yeah, because you care about these characters so much, you don’t want to see anything bad happen to any of them and... well, I’ll just leave it there but, because of the way the whole movie has been shot, a sequence which would just be ‘another thing’ in many movies is something of a stress inducing event in this one and, like I said, it all works beautifully.
As does the score by Þórarinn Guðnason, which is a very effective set of cues that, sadly, aren’t available as a commercially released CD at time of writing. Which is a shame because I would have ordered it straight away. And talking about sound... the director does that thing in one or two moments where the sound of the upcoming scene intrudes into the prior scene for a few seconds... which is kinda nice. It’s nothing new but I’ve not seen it done for a while (or, you know, heard it done for a while).
And that pretty much concludes my review of Lamb. A truly beautiful film and, I suspect, an excellent companion piece to Severin’s recent All The Haunts Be Ours box set, which I must get around to cracking open sometime soon. But, yeah, Lamb... easily one of the best films released last year and something I would recommend to pretty much anyone who loves the art of cinema. I was truly blown away by it. Also good for people who like watching Welsh Border Collies cavorting around with sheep, I should probably point out.