Director: Valdimar Jóhannsson
Writers: Sjón, Valdimar Jóhannsson
Cast: Noomi Rapace, Hilmir Snær Guðnason, Björn Hlynur Haraldsson, Ingvar Eggert Sigurðsson
Cinematographer: Eli Arenson
Editor: Agnieszka Glinska
Unfolding at a glacial pace, dark Icelandic folktale Lamb is aptly infused with a similar chill. The country’s official Oscars submission is a muted, mysterious fable about the perils of greedily grabbing from nature, relaying its awareness of countless other films in the same vein by wisely refusing to belabour the point. Instead, its approach is so understated, the film stops just short of being inscrutable. The serene, frozen loveliness of its setting is balanced out by the emotional churn of its protagonists, who only take from nature to fill the void in their heart.
When Lamb begins, a pall of gloom has settled upon married couple Maria (Noomi Rapace) and Ingvar (Hilmir Snaer Gudnason), as steadily as the snowfall at their remote sheep farm in rural Iceland. The freezing mist outside their home is shot like an extension of the frosty silence inside, so thick and oppressive, it threatens to swallow the pair whole. They engage in stilted, perfunctory conversations about work, but as the film takes its time revealing, it’s only because the personal is too painful to talk about.
Noomi excels in these moments of stillness, wordlessly creating the impression that each crease on her face has been put there by the hand of grief itself. While Lamb drops hints about the cause of the couple’s misery — an unused crib that lies in storage, a stray remark that conveys a longing for the past — these quiet implications hang in the air, waiting for viewers to notice and add them up. Nothing is ever explicitly stated. When one of the couple’s sheep gives birth to an unusual lamb (saying anything more would ruin the experience), a prolonged moment of eye contact between them conveys their implicit intent to raise her as their own.
The child, whom they name Ada, is a sight that only grows more unsettling as more of her form, created through a seamless blend of animals, actors, puppetry and CGI, is revealed. Like any new parents, however, Maria and Ingvar steadfastly refuse to entertain the idea that she is anything but perfect. But happiness built on collective delusion can’t last, and soon Maria’s sleep is disturbed by nightmares of rams with piercing eyes, and the pitiful bleating of Ada’s real mother outside their window. The sheep, with its trembling mouth and large mournful eyes, is the movie’s most upsetting visual, driving home the couple’s inadvertent cruelties even as the anguish borne out of their earlier childlessness renders them deserving of sympathy.
It becomes clear that there will soon be a price to pay and for the most part, this pastoral version of the Monkey’s Paw and its ‘be careful what you wish for’ allegory wields its long stretches of silence effectively, using them to create suspense and immerse viewers into the rhythms of a life so tranquil, its disruption is inevitable. It could almost be a rural family drama, if not for that one jarring visual at the centre of it. This is where it works best, as well-etched portrait of ordinary domesticity, with all its sweetness and warmth, all its familial secrets and petty jealousies. The directorial debut of Valdimar Jóhannsson, who co-wrote the film with the poet Sjón, Lamb is gripping right up till its underwhelming end, the final sequence seeming almost like an afterthought. The film, having spent so long ruminating in silence, disappointingly still hasn’t found the right words to wrap up its tale.