From the land of the Icelandic queen Björk, comes the feature debut from writer-director Valdimar Jóhannsson, a horror-tinged fantasy that feels closer to H.G. Wells and Henry Selick over David Cronenberg. “Lamb” is ultimately a tale of loss, drenched in folklore, driven by the need to continue as a species with memorable performances by Noomi Rapace, Hilmir Snær Guðnason, and especially Björn Hlynur Haraldsson. A rousing debut, fresh from its US premiere at Fantastic Fest 2021, and one of the best films of the year.
Ingvar (Guðnason) and Maria (Rapace) lead a quiet life on a rural farm in the scenic Nordic countryside. They tend to the sheep, do chores, and work the land. The married couple seems emotionless, caught in the monotony of everyday life. Their border collie named Dog (played by Panda) has more human qualities than they do, displaying a variety of emotions by just her facial expressions. “Lamb” marks Panda’s final performance (she passed away in March), though not her first. She also appeared in 2020’s “Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga” starring Will Ferrell. Rest in peace.
A scene at a cemetery on the couple’s farm confirms that Ingvar and Maria are grieving. It explains their solitude in the mornings and evenings without the distractions of running the farm. They are still very much in love, which comes through in the film even before they become attached to a newborn lamb, they name Ada.
At first, Ada, swaddled in a blanket and bottle-fed, is carried by Maria like a human baby. She takes her attachment to the next level by letting Ada sleep in the bed with her and Ingvar. Eventually, they break out the old baby crib letting Ada sleep in the room with them. This doesn’t sit well with the mother sheep who consistently stands outside the couple’s bedroom window. You don’t have to be a sheep whisperer to figure out that she wants her newborn back.
The story’s dynamic changes with the arrival of Pétur (Haraldsson), the vagabond musician brother of Ingvar, who eventually pops in every few years, always broke and directionless. Jóhannsson’s lens remains fixated on Pétur whose silence and icy stares signal his disapproval of his brother and sister-in-law’s offspring substitute. There’s anger in his voice when he declares, “What the f—k is this?” Haraldsson, best known for the British television series “Fortitude”, delivers the film’s finest performance as his character struggles with the situation at hand while trying to remain sensitive to the fact that Ingvar and Maria are still grieving parents and for the first time in a while, they seem very happy. However, he believes that Ada is an animal and belongs outside. The conflict adds another layer of tension to the story.
Working with cinematographer Eli Arenson to capture the midsummer light (where darkness lasts for only two short hours) and beautiful landscape with majestic ice-capped mountains, “Lamb” is visually striking as Jóhannsson pays tribute to his mentor Hungarian auteur Béla Tarr that begins with the film’s opening shot of wild horses braving the harsh winter weather, clearly distressed by something unseen. Tarr is listed as an executive producer after offering insight to Jóhannsson who graduated from the auteur’s film school in Sarajevo.
You won’t find any spoilers in this review, that would be downright reprehensible. The experience I had in the cinema should be yours. While watching “Lamb” there will be various thoughts that cross your mind as you grapple with what is transpiring on the screen. The key is to forget about rationalization and go with the flow. Eventually, a release should take place, thanks to the remarkable performances by the cast, that puts you in the right frame of mind to enjoy Jóhannsson’s film to the fullest. The struggle you may have of accepting cute and adorable little Ada, apart from the obvious, is warranted by the tense atmosphere dominating the film that leads to a shocking climax destined for iconic status.
The film made its US premiere at Fantastic Fest 2021 and opens Friday, October 8 in theaters with early screenings tonight