From Iceland — An Unusual Year in Icelandic Cinema As Usual

An Unusual Year in Icelandic Cinema As Usual

Published December 28, 2019

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Still from Agnes Joy

It‘s been a good year for Icelandic cinema with 66 films accepted into international film festivals. This ranges from classic fare such as Friðrik Þór Friðrikson’s 1991 Oscar nominee Children of Nature to last year’s brilliant And Breathe Normally, as well as a slew of new films.

The County

One of the most eagerly anticipated of these was Grímur Hákonarson’s The County, the follow-up to instant classic Rams from 2015. His documentary Little Moscow, about east coast communists from Neskaupsstaður during the Cold War, was still doing the rounds until his latest feature film landed in August. The County managed to be that rarity, a film which actually had an impact on the society around it. Set in a northern fjord, it portrayed a society under the thrall of the local co-operative. These companies were set up in the early 20th Century to bring cheaper foodstuffs to farmers than the Danish merchants of old had managed but have long since become monopolists themselves, selling at high prices to local farmers while keeping them from selling their produce for better offers elsewhere. It seems like 100 years ago but this is set in the present day and while admirable for starting a debate, it pays more tribute to Grímur’s skill as a social commentator seen in his documentaries rather than the sublime poetry of Rams.

White, White Day

Director Hlynur Pálmason has close ties to the countryside, being born in Hornafjörður, but his first film Winter Brothers was shot and produced in Denmark in the local tongue to considerable success. His second film White, White Day then is a homecoming of sorts. A triumph for its leading man, Ingvar E. Sigurðsson who plays the brooding Nordic man silently coming to grips with loss, it is competently made but doesn’t add much new to the genre.

Unusual Film About Usual Things

The aforementioned films belong to a tradition that began with the Icelandic film spring of the early 80s, but a story firmly anchored in the present day is Agnes Joy. It’s the first film Silja Hauksdóttir has directed since 2004’s Dís and is a welcome return. Both films deal with the troubles, romantic and otherwise, of young women, but what a difference 15 years makes. While Dís portrayed a homogenous Iceland before the economic collapse, we here enter a multicultural society where exploitation of foreign workers sits side by side with the rather more mundane travails of the adopted Agnes who is, as the tagline for Dís said, an unusually usual girl despite her foreign origins, which makes Agnes Joy an unusual film about usual things.

The One To Watch

Tackling the beast head-on is Rúnar Rúnarsson’s Echo, which unusually offers a panoramic view of Icelandic society rather than the usual microcosm of struggling small-towners. We see the mistreatment of foreign labour, cutting to the Christmas consumerist anxieties of more established locals in a series of usually excellent vignettes. With this brave departure from his previous two films, Rúnar is one to watch.

No Need To Pretend To Be An Elf

A film that hides its Icelandic roots well is End of Sentence by Elfar Aðalsteins, which opened this year’s RIFF festival. Starring veteran actor John Hawkes, it tells the story of an American travelling through Ireland (with an R). Decent enough if not spectacular, perhaps it marks a coming of age for Icelandic cinema when Icelandic directors no longer need to broadcast their Icelandicness in order to tell a story, in the same manner that bands like Kaleo and Of Monsters and Men don’t need to pretend to be elves to get airplay.

The Vasulka Effect

It was also an interesting year for documentaries. Most memorable was Pawel Ziemilski’s In Touch, one of the first movies to feature Iceland’s growing Polish community. Honourable mention also goes to The Vasulka Effect, the surprising true story of an Icelandic-Czech couple who took the New York art world by storm and features cameos from everyone from Andy Warhol to Patti Smith.

And Then, Of Course, Hildur Guðna

But probably the greatest achievement for Icelandic film personnel this year goes to Hildur Guðnadóttir, who won accolades for providing the score for The Joker and the TV series Chernobyl as well as the local series Trapped. Icelandic film music has certainly come of age, despite the tragic loss of Jóhann Jóhannsson last year. No doubt many are keeping their fingers crossed for an Oscar win for Hildur next February which would more than make up for Iceland dropping out of the best foreign-language film category again. And Heba Þórisdóttir might also win for best makeup in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, if Hollywood dreams do come true. Perhaps we will be nominated for Best Foreign Language Film again in the 2020s. At this rate, it’s bound to happen someday.

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