Movie Review: Icelandic Grudges get grim “Under the Tree”

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It helps to remember these people were Vikings, once.

Get past the whole polite and smiling, tourist-friendly, global-financial-crisis exacerbating blondes taking daily dips in the volcanic hot springs, the almost unpronounceable names, the grey-black landscape of lava usually covered by snow.

Iceland is greener than you think — and maybe meaner.

“Under the Tree” is an acrostic essay in grief, repression, guilt and bitterness. It’s all out there in the open, lines being crossed, psychic, verbal and even physical violence suggested, threatened looming. And nobody can seem to stop it.

Agnes and Alti (Lára Jóhanna Jónsdóttir, Steinþór Hróar Steinþórsson) are a married couple with a daughter, living under a glacier that settled on the marriage some time back. When she catches him watching sex on the computer, she is shocked and hurt.

Until she learns it is him having sex with another woman. Doesn’t matter when that happened, or that she interrupted him before he masturbated. There’s no coming back from that. A shouting match leads to separation, the separation leads to more and more frantic stalking, harassment and dragging their little girl’s school into their custody fight.

Alti has a temper, and Agnes holds a grudge like a pro.

Alti’s mom, Inga (Edda Björgvinsdóttir) lost her other son and cannot properly grieve for the bitterness. She takes out her frustrations on the annoying neighbor (Þorsteinn Bachmann) who ditched his wife and took up with a younger woman, Eybjorg (Selma Björnsdóttir), who further annoys Inga with her cycling, exercise togs and the German shepherd she lets roam over the shared backyard of their duplex.

Inga’s husband Baldvin (Sigurður Sigurjónsson) is the reasonable one here, but even he thinks the neighbor’s niggling complaints about a tree that “shades our patio” is too much. 

“That tree is coming down!”

Want to bet?

Their feud starts with a certain decorum and escalates, comically and tragically, with each bare-bottomed garden gnome prank, every increasingly intemperate remark, most of them from Inga.

“Just admit what you’ve done, you cow.” Sounds even worse in Icelandic (with English subtitles).

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At every turn, co-writer/director Hafsteinn Gunnar Sigurðsson confronts the viewer with people concerned with rules, manners and decorum, and others flouting them — a heated argument at the apartment building coop meeting over the young couple having noisy, uninhibited sex at all hours, colleagues trying not to see the menacing harassment by a husband chasing his wife into their office, the hapless teachers trying to maintain “rules” and the letter of the law in a community-nation so small everybody knows or is related to everybody else.

It’s jarring and stereotype-smashing, for starters, and just plain disturbing on top of that.

The interlocked scenarios take their share of melodramatic turns, which the average viewer can anticipate too easily, thanks to Sigurðsson hitting the foreshadowing button too hard. But “Under the Tree” is still as disturbing a Scandinavian domestic collapse as we’ve seen in any drama since Ingmar hung it up, lives lived in the open under the midnight sun, but with darkness lurking in the shade, “Under the Tree.”

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MPAA Rating: unrated, violence, sex, nudity, alcohol, smoking

Cast:Edda Björgvinsdóttir, Þorsteinn Bachmann, Selma Björnsdóttir, Sigurður Sigurjónsson, Steinþór Hróar SteinþórssonLára Jóhanna Jónsdóttir

Credits:Directed by Hafsteinn Gunnar Sigurðsson script by  Huldar Breiðfjörð and Hafsteinn Gunnar Sigurðsson. A Magnolia release.

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