The Icelandic environment and its folklore are inextricably intertwined. The island’s often bleak and treacherous landscape is the perfect backdrop against which the monstrous and fantastical can take form in human imaginations, and ‘Lamb’ is a worthy modern contributor to this tradition.
The narrative of the film revolves around María and Ingvar, a married couple whose sheep farm is the focus of their somewhat joyless existence. They have no children, and apparently find scant solace in their routine of tending the land and birthing lambs.
However one such birth shocks the couple out of their torpor. The ill-formed new-born is nothing like either of them has seen before, and their initial reaction is one of horror and confusion. But this new life landing in their laps stimulates dormant nurturing instincts, and leads to the prospect of a new life for both of them.
This creature is no ordinary lamb, if indeed it is a lamb at all. Nevertheless, the opportunity to care for something that needs them is irresistible to the couple. They take the new arrival from its mother for bottle-feeding, and into their bedroom to occupy the crib of Ada—their dead daughter. And they give the new arrival a name too: Ada.
When Pétur, Ingvar’s brother, shows up uninvited at the farm it seems that his incursion into this bizarre domestic set-up might burst its bubble. Pétur is initially revolted by Ada, and by his family’s reaction to her arrival. “What the fuck is this?” he asks Ingvar. “Happiness,” comes the response.
Pétur’s extended stay allows him to slowly enter the couple’s world of suspended reality. And in time, as unlikely as it seems, Pétur comes not only to accept Ada but to join María and Ingvar in nurturing her.
However nature doesn’t care about human feelings, and the forces which fomented this strange but comfy scenario eventually initiate its horrific unravelling.
Strong start, slow burn
‘Lamb’ is a remarkable directorial debut for Icelander Valdimar Jóhannsson, and was lauded at the Cannes Film Festival this year. Valdimar also co-wrote the film, working with award-winning Icelandic novelist and poet Sjón.
Shot on an abandoned sheep farm in north Iceland, the film has a distinctly Nordic magical realism about it. The visual aesthetic is rich but cold, (desaturated blue-grey hues dominate throughout), and the direction is distinctly slow-burn; we watch María and Ingvar going about their business for the first ten minutes of the film before either of them speaks.
This low-key approach extends to the gradual revelation of the main plot developments. When the bizarre nature of the newborn is revealed to the viewer, it is without fanfare and almost incidental. It’s as if the viewer is being invited to join in the suspension of reality adopted by the three human characters, and to accept that this is all quite normal.
‘Lamb’ deftly intertwines natural, supernatural and human elements into a coherent space in which the story can play. It’s a modern day manifestation of the lore that folk have created since the beginning of time, in an attempt to make sense of their world.
But beneath the supernatural elements, ‘Lamb’ is also a very human tale which examines the fraught insecurities of love. The desire to create a protective bubble around an object of love, and to fiercely—perhaps irrationally—defend it against anything which might intrude is laid bare here. And it reflects our shared experience of loss and longing; of needing to need, and be needed.
‘Lamb’ is on general cinematic release internationally from October 8th, using the name ‘Dýrið’ (‘The Beast’) in Iceland.
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