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Film review: Lamb

17 December 2021

Stephen Brown reviews an Icelandic drama

A still from Lamb

A still from Lamb

IT’S Christmas time. In Dulci Jubilo plays on Radio Reykjavik, followed by the evening prayer, but there’s little sweet rejoicing by the couple seen on a distant farm. Thus does Lamb (Cert. 15), Iceland’s Oscars entry, begin. An ethereal atmosphere pervades the homestead, after which a holy miracle occurs. A child is born, one whose shelter is a stable and whose cradle is a stall. There are shepherds abiding in the fields, and the woman’s name is the Nordic version of Mary. The film looks all set for a contemporary account of the nativity. The plot, however, thickens.

This newborn is no ordinary human being. The couple believe that Ada is a gift from God. Noomi Rapace as Maria calls it “a new beginning”. Unrelieved gloom yields to delight as she and Ingvar (Hilmir Snaer Gudnason) celebrate becoming a family. This newborn happens to be a lamb. To avoid spoilers, let’s just say that it goes well beyond treating a pet animal as offspring.

The film burrows deeply into Icelandic saga. At times, it is also akin to Scandi-noir. There’s an air of menace, especially after Ingvar’s wayward brother Pétur (Björn Hlynur Haraldsson) arrives. His bewilderment at the couple’s surrogate parenting regularly threatens to erupt into violence. Comparisons have been made with films such as The Fly for its sinister undertones. But there is some comedy, too, as if we are in on a joke.

That said, the predominant tone is of sadness born of loss. Early intimations lead to learning of a deceased daughter, Ada. It is hard not to perceive a biblical parallel with this name. In Genesis, there is an Adah who is descended from Cain. A hint, perhaps, that this new family bears his mark of doom? There are other nods to scripture. When the lamb goes missing, it is reminiscent of young Jesus in the Temple, needing to visit his true parental home (Luke 2.41-52).

On one level, very little happens dramatically. On another, it is an impressively sensitive inquiry into the consequences of bereavement. The virtuoso performance from Noomi Rapace (The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, Prometheus) ably assists this. She runs a gamut of emotional responses to the gift bestowed upon her. Nevertheless, there is an impending sense that her soul will be pierced like Mary’s. The debut director, Valdimar Jo´hannsson, has skilfully assembled a tale of the unexpected. The cinematographer Eli Arenson’s lonely landscapes aptly reflect the inner bleakness of those who inhabit this terrain. Hence does the gift of Ada, with all its supernatural context, bring new birth.

It is no surprise that Lamb reminds us of Béla Tarr’s films, which rend the heart with their juxtaposition of joy and woe. He is an executive producer. This nativity that we witness heralds a world in which love prospers side by side with adversity.

In selected cinemas and streaming on MUBI.

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