Director Silja Hauksdóttir emerged as a director in 2003 with the charming ‘Dís,’ based on a novel she co-wrote. After directing a couple of episodes of the annual ‘Áramótskaup’ sketch comedy review—including the legendary post-collapse edition in 2008—she’s back with her sophomore effort, ‘Agnes Joy.’
Frustratingly far away
‘Agnes Joy’ is set almost entirely in Akranes, a town often ignored by Icelandic filmmakers. As New Jersey is to New York City, Akranes is so close and yet frustratingly far from the bright city lights.
Titular character Agnes wants a night on the town, meaning Reykjavík, but her friends worry about hitching a ride back and prefer to sit at home and watch football. Though they live in a virtual Reykjavík suburb, they might as well be on the other side of the country. In one gorgeous shot, we see the teenagers drinking by the shore, looking longingly over to the lights of the capital across the bay.
Agnes is ably played by newcomer Donna Cruz, and this is one of the first films to feature a main character adopted to Iceland, but rather than being an anomaly and the crux of the plot, it is here presented as rather ordinary. In fact, it is Agnes’ parents who want to travel to the Philippines and see where their adopted daughter is from, while Agnes, like many small-town Icelandic teen solely dreams of moving to Reykjavík.
The seducing next door neighbour
The plot shuttles between Agnes and her mother Rannveig, wonderfully portrayed by Katla Þorgeirdóttir, who does a memorable dance during a solo drinking bout. While the film seems at times unclear as to who is the main protagonist, both actresses manage to hold our attention during their respective screen times.
In ‘Agnes Joy,’ for once, it is the male characters who seem underdeveloped. Hreinn, played by Björn Hlynur Haraldsson, is the handsome new next-door neighbour who chiefly serves the plot function of seducing both mother and daughter, a fact he’s rather less concerned about than Dustin Hoffmann in ‘The Graduate.’
Þorsteinn Bachmann, one of the country’s finest actors, gets even less to do as the deadbeat Einar who hardly musters up enough energy to get angry with this new neighbour when the affairs all come to light. The two do get one scene together when Hreinn gets Einar to read a script with him and gets out-acted—a sly nod to the audience perhaps, but we could have done with more of this. Watching actors act as actors can be intriguing, as both Edward Norton and Leonardo DiCaprio have shown recently.
Almost comically Icelandic setting
The film thankfully avoids being too heavy-handed. When someone praises Agnes for her Icelandic skills it is awkward but not mean spirited. Things get worse when she is taken for a prostitute in Reykjavík, but her heritage is only mentioned in the reverse in Akranes, as in the opening scene when she is throwing up yesterdays’ Opal liquor while wearing a traditional Icelandic costume, an almost comically Icelandic setting.
Various subplots could have been better explored, such as the relationship between Rannveig and her mother, and not least the family company’s intention to hire foreign workers at less pay to stay in tune with the times. This is easily thwarted but could have been a movie in itself. ‘Agnes Joy’ is a competent second film from a talented filmmaker, but it lacks the oomph to make it extraordinary.
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