Don’t expect any shots of gloomy winter landscapes in this new dark Icelandic suburban satire. Under the Tree portrays very recognisable troubled human relationships and an ongoing neighbour dispute, centred around the tree mentioned in the title. This latest ‘dramedy’ from the producers of Rams might start off as a comedy, but soon develops into a bloody Jacobean tragedy with events that will both make you laugh and cringe in your seat.
Hands up, who’s ever been annoyed by their neighbour’s tree?
It might sound trivial, but hubby and I had been annoyed by our neighbour’s tree for quite a while. It was clear it had never been planted there intentionally as it was squashed right between the wall of their house and the fence separating their property from ours. In winter it was fine as the branches were bare, but from springtime we could see the leafy branches expanding and pushing into the fence which started to bend. How do you resolve such a matter? From previous experiences in the distant past I know trying to resolve rather straightforward issues with neighbours can easily result in grief, a lot of finger-pointing and always having to spend more money than you’d expect to.
So that’s why we kept our mouths shut for a while, while we watched the fence bent more by the day and kept our fingers crossed it wouldn’t crash onto our car that was parked right next to it. Until one day we decided enough was enough and marched down to their letting agent. The tree was cut down within two days without any hassle and every time we walk out of the door, we admire the bare, yet still bent, fence. Unfortunately the tree saga isn’t resolved that easily in Under the Tree.
One of the slowest car chases in recent film history
“Stories of neighbours fighting over trees are actually quite well known in Iceland”, says Hafsteinn Gunnar Sigurdsson, director of Under the Tree. “What’s also important to know is that trees are not all that common in Iceland, so if you have an old and beautiful tree standing in your garden, you’re very unlikely to ever want to let go of it.” It’s therefore no surprise that protagonists Inga and Baldvin refuse to trim or cut down their tree, despite their neighbours Konrad and Eybjorg complaining about the huge shadow it casts on their porch. However, as Sigurdsson continues “if a tree in the next garden is preventing any sun from shining into your garden, you are going to want to get rid of that tree. Especially since we don’t get that much sunshine in Iceland. It’s the kind of head to head dilemma that unfortunately is hard to solve in a diplomatic way.” And it would be an understatement to say this neighbourly conflict is resolved non-diplomatically, it is in fact a great disaster.
We first see Inga and Baldvin after their son Atli is kicked out of his house by his partner Agnes after she catches him watching a sex video of him and his ex-girlfriend. His attempts to contradict this are rather pathetic yet amusing, similar to the moment when he follows her to her work. As Geoffrey Macnab amusingly points out in his review of the film in the Independent this is “one of the slowest and most wayward car chases in recent film history” (source).
Two Families. One Tree. A Bloody Mess.
Atli goes to stay with his parents where he witnesses the painful ongoing conflict between his parents and their neighbours. It doesn’t take long before you discover that Atli and his parents are tormented by a painful event that happened to them in the past. When their cat goes missing, the uncertainty of the cat’s fate bears a great similarity to that unbearable event the whole family is still trying to get to terms with. To me the shadow that is cast by the tree is therefore a metaphor for the life events that cast a shadow emotionally on Atli’s family and also on the neighbours who have their own issues to deal with. While Inga, the main instigator whose rather unorthodox and extreme actions in the neighbourly dispute have a spiralling downward effect, her underlying motivations might be as complex and concealed as the widely branched out tree roots that are hidden underground.
And where does it go from here?
I wish I could tell you, but I don’t want to spoil the storyline for you. What I can tell you is that, following the tradition of Jacobean tragedies, the events in this absorbing film quickly escalate and tragic mistakes result in an cataclysmic downward spiralling effect. It reminded me of the Norwegian film Headhunters, one of my favourite films from recent years, which is pretty ‘bonkers’ and an absolute must-see.
Although I could definitely relate to the basic premises of Under the Tree, the neighbourly dispute caused by the tree and the failing human relationships, I’m just relieved I never got mixed up in the dramatic events as in the film. Lesson learned – be good to your neighbour, especially if you have a pet or garden gnomes!
Whilst watching the film I recognised the significant role the music plays. I’m not always aware of film scores, unless it really adds something to the moving images and not only complements the film but actually lifts it up and enhances it. As the atmosphere of the film turns into something darker, so does the music, creating a tense and ominous mood. Hafsteinn Gunnar Sigurdsson says the following about working with longtime friend and composer Daniel Bjarnason: “I always knew that I wanted to approach part of the story as a thriller. It may not be that obvious when you read the script, so using music along with cinematography was a very important tool to create that feeling of unease and suspense. … What I told him [Bjarnason] in the beginning was that I didn’t want a conventional score where the music is only there to support the image. I told him that I wanted the music to be a force of its own, a statement in a way. And he really nailed it.”
On a personal note I got very excited to see the the name of my friend and celebrated Icelandic record producer, composer and musician, Valgeir Sigurdsson in the credits as he mixed this very fine score. And that is absolutely another reason to see this film!
Under the Tree is out in selected UK cinemas now. For further information about the film and to to buy tickets go to www.underthetreefilm.co.uk.