DVD Review: The Juniper Tree

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Slow-burning Icelandic Folk Horror.

Bleaker than Disney adaptations, this version of a Brothers Grimm fairytale is an overlooked film that viewed from a twenty-first-century perspective is a much-needed antidote to Twilightified narratives.

Director Nietzchka Keene was originally in Iceland on a Fullbright scholarship to make a different film when she decided to jettison the project and bring the dark Grimms story to the screen.

Keene’s melancholic and austere film evokes the story’s unsettling tone without being too slavish in following the original text. Wisely choosing to be free with the source material, the director relocated the story to Iceland. Removing the narrative from its original Germanic setting and placing it in a new historically specific context gave it a grounding which would have been resonated with Icelandic audiences. Trimming the story’s more fantastical elements, the director was committed to communicating a sense of plausibility.

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Recording a then vanishing folklore tradition, the Brothers Grimm fairy tales were originally written for an adult readership. Sanitized by publishers and Disney screen adaptations, the original versions of the tales are dark and disturbing explorations of a society’s social, cultural, psychological, and psychosexual fears. Nietzchka Keene had studied the narratives and wanted to wed their commentary on female sexuality with a study of Icelandic folklore traditions in the period immediately after the nation converted to Christianity.

In Icelandic folk tales, the divide between the worlds of the living and dead is not firm and fixed, deceased family members return to issue warnings or tempt the living into tasting death’s embrace. Nietzchka Keene’s changes to the Grimm’s narrative incorporates this strand of folk literature. Adding the ghost of a deceased mother to the story accentuates the already palpable sense of unease.

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Filmed in the summer of 1986, the film seemed fated to rot in an archive. Lead actor Bjork’s propulsion to internationally successful recording artist resulted in funds to complete editing being made available and the film was released in 1990.

Self-consciously meshing contrasts, the film demands total concentration. Its commitment to historical authenticity is deliberately offset by the decision to get Icelandic actors to record their dialogue in English. Filmed in stark monochrome, the dramatic beauty of an Icelandic summer has never before seemed so menacing on screen.

This Nordic Folk Horror is worthy to be placed alongside The Wicker Man, BBC’s Ghost Stories for Christmas, and Witchfinder General.

The Juniper Tree is available to order from Amazon.

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Film Review: The Homecoming

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An author of self-help books is in denial about his own problems.

Bestselling author Gunnar ((Hilmar Jónsson) is tired of writing self-help books. Contractually committed to producing another three titles he suggests the publisher repackage earlier books. Success has paid for homes in the city and countryside. Despite the rewards, he is prepared to walk away from a highly profitable career.

Famed for advising people how to reach inner peace, his own life is fracturing. Gestur’s marriage is in trouble and long-forgotten secrets are about to turn his world upside down.

Best known for his performances in Jar City, The Lava Field, Trapped, and Fortitude, writer-director Björn Hlynur Haraldsson is one of the co-founders of Icelandic theatre company Vesturport. Based on his stageplay, The Homecoming is Björn Hlynur’s cinematic directorial debut.

An unpredictable tragi-comedy, it’s treatment of genuinely dark subject matter may unsettle some viewers. On the surface this may appear to be a credulity-stretching Nordic farce but peel back the layers and be rewarded with a humorous take on the dangers of living in a small and interconnected society.

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Gestur’s son has returned from holiday with a new girlfriend. A decades-old secret is about to be exposed as the father is confronted with the daughter he abandoned 25 years ago. The writer of countless self-help books has no idea how to cope with this crisis. Already showing signs of mid-life malaise, Gestur’s behaviour alarms his wife and son as he tries to sabotage the relationship without revealing his youthful infidelity.

While Nordic Noir has crossed over into the mainstream, Icelandic comedies are largely unknown in the UK. The Night Shift and Rams have found an appreciative audience but a wider cycle of darkly humorous films and TV series confronting taboos has yet to be released here.

Will The Homecoming be the film to crossover and introduce Icelandic gallows humour (or gálgahúmor as it’s known in Iceland) to a wider marketplace? In an increasingly anodyne age, the fact that The Homecoming even exists is remarkable.

Undoubtedly an acquired taste, the film confronts  some weighty subject matter head-on and will make you laugh at the darker side of life.

The Homecoming is screening at the Nordic-Baltic Film Festival.

Your Iceland Noir DVD Shopping List

The seven DVDs you must have in your collection.

Trapped was a game-changer. It alerted Nordic Noir fans that some of the most exhilarating TV being produced today hailed from the land of fire and ice. Far from being a one-off, Walter Presents’ forthcoming series Case demonstrates Icelandic is experiencing a creative purple patch. One of the most significant European shows to air in the UK since the initial explosion of interest in all things Nordic, Case is a masterclass in thrilling TV which will get under your skin.

Icelandic production company Sagafilm has recently made Out of Thin Air for Netflix and BBC. Described as Iceland’s Making a Murderer, the documentary is a taut and compelling examination of the nation’s most notorious murder investigation.

Whether Trapped has whetted your appetite for more dark and intense thrillers or you want to discover more classic series before watching Case and Out of Thin Air, here is a selection of DVDs that you’ll want to watch again and again…

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Jar City

Credited with being ushering a new wave of cinematic Icelandic Noirs, Baltasar Kormákur’s adaptation of Arnaldur Indridason’s novel is the nation’s most successful Icelandic crime film at the box office. An energetic novel filled with dense plotting, vivid descriptions, and psychological realism was transformed into an atmospheric and darkly humorous thriller, Far more than just the film with the hero eating a boiled sheep’s head, Jar City is an intricate and haunting mystery.

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Black Angels

Tightly directed adaptation of Ævar Orn Josepsson’s novels. A team of four detectives is investigating an apparent suicide. Researching the deceased’s background the investigators uncover evidence which suggests that he may have been murdered. Presenting a portrait of an increasingly fractured Icelandic society being contaminated by the influence of international criminal organisations, this series has much to recommend. Some impressive stuntwork also marks it out as a DVD well worth tracking down.

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I Hunt Men

Trapped‘s Ólafur Darri Ólafsson plays a dishevelled detective partnered with a by-the-book officer. In the Westfjords of Iceland, a serial killer is targeting goose hunters. Adapted from Viktor Arnar Ingólfsson’s Daybreak, I Hunt Men is a cinematic thriller that showcases the beauty of Iceland’s natural scenery. Packed with twist-and-turns, it grips right up to the unexpected conclusion.

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The Court

Icelandic TV’s first legal drama is a socially charged series that deftly vacillates between moments of intensity and quirky humour. Screenwriters Sigurjón Kjartansson (Trapped), Margrét Örnólfsdóttir, and Kristinn Thordarson intelligently play with expectations throughout the series. Balancing a judicious mix of plot and character driven moments, the writers have delivered an intriguing Nordic Noir filled with insights into the Icelandic legal system’s workings. Even-handed in it’s treatment of the judiciary, The Court focuses on crime’s emotional impact on victims and their families. See this before watching Walter Presents exemplary Case.

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The Cliff

Prequel to Netflix’s The Lava Field. A Reykjavik detective is dispatched to assist the investigation into the death of a construction worker in a remote small town. Tapping into fears about hidden people interfering with building projects, this series plays out like an episode of The X-Files shot by John Ford.

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The Press

A high-profile tabloid newspaper provides the backdrop for a snappily paced series that highlights the dangers journalists face when they expose criminality. Compelling and cautionary, the series takes a realistic approach as it takes the viewer on a frenzied whistle-stop tour of Reykjavik’s criminal underbelly and back to an ego-filled newsroom. Bjarne Henriksen (The Killing, Borgen, and Trapped) delivers a bed-wettingly terrifying performance as the second season’s villain.

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The Night Shift

Icelandic TV’s crown jewel. Filled with pathos, this comedy of three misfits working the late shift in a petrol station is a perfect realisation of crushed dreams and lost souls. Making history as the first Icelandic series to be screened by BBC Four, it introduced British viewers to the man who would one day become Mayor of Reykjavik, Jón Gnarr. Two sequel series and a feature film continued the story of the shift workers. Perfectly cast, The Night Shift is peerless. Ranks alongside Hancock’s Half Hour, Fawlty Towers, and Father Ted as one of European TV’s all-time great comedies.

Nammi.is is the place to visit for all your subtitled Icelandic DVDs

Iceland Noir booking information.

DVD Review: Black’s Game

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A new breed of criminal emerged at the tail end of the twentieth century. Gangsters and drug barons who had operated in Reykjavik since the 1970s were overthrown by a more brutal regime. The more “innocent” era of soft drugs and hobbyist pushers was replaced by one which saw the flourishing of a number of organised crime groups that were more willing to use extreme violence.

Author Stefán Máni’s novel Black’s Curse (Svartur leik á) was based on a detailed investigation he had conducted into Reykjavik’s underworld. A number of real-life events were incorporated into the powerful and eruptive novel’s narrative.

Aside from being encouraged to emphasise violence, screenwriter and director Óskar Thór Axelsson was given a relatively free hand in adapting the novel for the screen. A long time fan of the genre, he saw his first gangster film at the age of eleven. Referencing his favouite films, he throws in moments which will delight fellow aficionados and is committed to honouring the novel’s realist approach.

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Stebbi (Thor Kristjansson – Life in a Fishbowl, Dracula Untold) has spent a night in a police cell. Released from custody on bail, he bumps into old school friend Tóti (Jóhannes Haukur Jóhannesson – Game of Thrones, The Press, The Court). Tóti is now an enforcer and debt collector for Iceland’s biggest drug dealer, Jóa Pharaoh. Stebbi is promised an introduction to a lawyer who will ensure all charges against him are dropped if he does one job for Tóti.

Accepted into the gang, Stebbi believes he has hit the big time. The high-life comes at a price, risks intensify as he descends deeper into the gang network.

When Tóti’s gang joins forces with psychotic mob boss Bruno’s (Damon Younger – Dirty Pretty Things, The Girl in the Cafe) outfit they eliminate the old guard and escalate their activities. Fuelled by copious amounts of cocaine and convinced they are somehow invincible the gang unleashes a wave of violence across the city.

Stebbi’s state of sociopathic bliss is shattered when he is raped by Bruno, A life on the edge in a world of bank robberies drug-dealing, extortion, and pimping had until that moment seemed free of personal consequence.

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Indebted to The Godfather, Goodfellas, Trainspotting, and the Pusher trilogy, the film is a pacy hard-edged thriller. Director Óskar Thór Axelsson and producer Nicolas Winding Refn (Drive, Pusher) bring a freshness of touch to the genre and make effective use of the Icelandic setting.

With a knowing wink, the director has delivered a film that ticks all boxes in terms of what viewers want from a drug heist film and tossed a uniquely local message into the mix.

Made for a media-savvy audience, Black’s Game plays with and kicks against assumptions. The script’s subversion of expectations does more than wrong-foot, it offers a commentary on Icelandic society in the late 1990s. Seen through the prism of a post-economic meltdown perspective, the idea that a drug heist might be more profitable than a bank robbery seems all too plausible.

Brutally realistic, Black’s Game is an energised hard-edged glimpse into Reykjavik’s underworld that never feels like a debut film. Referencing of its influences sometimes seems a bit too on the nose but it’s nontheless an enjoyable film filled with enough original moments to make it a memorable movie.

Black’s Game is available to order from Amazon

DVD Review: Cold Trail (Köld slóð)

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Things That Go Norse in the Night: Whodunnit with a supernatural twist

Released in the same year as Jar City, Cold Trail took a very different path and provided further evidence that the nation’s filmmakers were intent on pushing the envelope.

Generously budgeted in comparison to other movies from the period, director Björn Brynjúlfur Björnsson’s first feature film is set in the inhospitable frozen wastelands of Iceland’s north. Equal parts locked room murder mystery, suspense thriller, and ghost story, Cold Trail mashes up familiar generic tropes and somehow produces an utterly idiosyncratic and uniquely Icelandic film experience.

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Reckless journalist Baldur Maríusson (Þröstur Leó Gunnarsson – 101 Reykjavik, Metalhead) is investigating a CEO accused of child molestation. In his eagerness to bag a front page exclusive, he neglects to fact-check the story and the newspaper is forced to issue a retraction when the wrongly accused CEO visits the office in a state of great distress. As he deals with the fallout caused by publication of his hastily written article another story breaks that will have profoundly personal ramifications.

The news that a dam worker has fallen to death is just another headline which will be examined by a colleague and swiftly forgotten about or so he thinks. After learning that the deceased was the father he never knew, Baldur sneaks into a morgue hoping to say goodbye. Discovering a puncture mark on the corpse’s chest he quits his paper and gets a job as a night watchman at the dam in order to unravel the truth about his father’s death.

Infiltrating the dam he finds a murky world of strange behaviour and dark secrets. Supposedly haunted by a worker who died during the building’s construction, he sees a figure in the corner of his vision and is unsure if an intruder has broken in or if his mind is playing tricks on him.

Working alongside his father’s former colleagues he learns unpalatable truths about the mysterious figure who chose to abandon his parental duties and live a booze-soaked life in a remote northern outpost.

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The best locked-room mysteries reward repeated viewings. Cold Trail‘s efficient screenplay pays homage to the genre and is packed with enough quirks to make it stand out as a distinctive film in its own right. Trimmed of fat and layered with a succession of clever setups, reveals, and red herrings, nothing is wasted in the script. Every line of dialogue and character action has added significance that only becomes apparent when the closing credits roll. Watch the film a second, or third, time and take delight in spotting clues and seeing how the film doffs a hat to the genre while successfully throwing other influences into the mix.

Björn Brynjúlfur Björnsson’s direction balances the need to convey intense claustrophobia while exemplifying the beauty and inherent danger of Iceland’s frozen north.

A spine-tingling thriller that will leave you feeling jelly-legged. Cold Trail is one of modern Icelandic screen crime’s foundation stones.

A subtitled DVD is available to order from Nammi.is

DVD Review: Shadow of the Raven (Í skugga hrafnsins)

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One-time enfant terrible of the Icelandic filmmaking community and self-confessed anarchist, Hrafn Gunnlaugsson is an uncompromising auteur. Initially ignored in his homeland, he is now regarded as one of modern Icelandic cinema’s founding fathers.

His previous film, The Raven Flies, made history as the first Icelandic co-production with an international partner. Despite a muted domestic response, the film was positively received overseas. In addition to winning the award for Best Director at the 20th Guldbagge Awards, Hrafn Gunnlaugsson’s creative vision was recognized when the film was voted one of the decade’s most outstanding films by the Tokyo International Film Festival.

Despite a tortuous production which jeopardized the director’s health, his commitment to producing authentic Viking period films remained undimmed. A second film in the trilogy, Shadow of the Raven, was released in 1988.

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During his childhood, Hrafn Gunnlaugsson listened to his grandmother as she retold Sagas. A body of literature possibly unparalleled in European civilization. The Sagas are an intrinsic part of Icelandic society. Influencing modern-day storytelling, they are an early example of frontier literature. Documenting the life of settlers and their descendants in the 10th and 11th centuries, the Sagas are a collection of narratives containing blood-soaked accounts of feuds, doomed love affairs, fights, vengeance, and reconciliation. Passed down orally through successive generations before being preserved in the 13th century by monks using berry-ink and calfskin vellum. A sophisticated literary form, the Sagas predate the emergence of the novel and share many of its characteristics. Renowned as one of the masterpieces of world literature, they have been ranked alongside Homeric epics and the work of William Shakespeare.

During pre-production on The Raven Flies Hrafn Gunnlaugsson explored the possibility of adapting a Saga before deciding to craft an original story that retained the flavour of that impressive body of literature. When beginning work on Shadow of the Raven he once again drew inspiration from the Sagas. Fusing elements from several Sagas, most notably Njal’s saga, he blended an indigenous mythology with an imported legend, Tristan and Isuelt.

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Obscured by the legacy of Hrafn Gunnlaugsson’s previous film, Shadow of the Raven is arguably the trilogy’s standout moment. Boasting more mature direction, greater set pieces, and fatalistic character sketches, the film is a haunting epic.

An avowed enthusiast of John Ford, Sergio Leone, and Akira Kurosawa, Hrafn Gunnlaugsson continues to pay homage to Samurai Films and Spaghetti Westerns while demonstrating an appreciation of Ingmar Bergman. Cine-literate, the director embraces his influences and demonstrates a highly distinct voice.

Returning to Iceland after studying theology in Norway, Trausti (Reine Brynolfsson) find rival clans feuding over a beached whale. The year is 1077, it is a transitional moment in Icelandic history. Christianity has officially replaced the old religion although some of its trappings still exist in Icelandic culture.

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As two clans go to war, Trausti’s mother is mortally wounded. Rival clan leader Erikur is slain and his daughter Isold (Tinna Gunnlaugsdóttir) inherits his property and position. Daughter of a woman who was executed for practicing witchcraft, she is raising an illegitimate child. Promised in marriage to the son of the Bishop of Iceland, the union will create the nation’s biggest clan.

Blaming Trausti for the death of her father Isold vows to kill him. Swayed by his compassion and honesty she plans a marriage that will diminish the Bishop’s power.

Potent and epic, Hrafn Gunnlaugsson’s version of the tale of star-crossed lovers draws from Norwegian and Icelandic versions popular in the 12th and 13th centuries. Set during the period documented by the Sagas, the increased role of the then new Christian religion in Nordic versions differentiated it from English and French variants. In Shadow of the Raven, it is given greater prominence as it is used to underscore the clash between old and new models of Icelandic society. Ravens and white veils are used as visual motifs to symbolize the values and morality of the old paganism and new Christian religion.

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Showcasing Iceland’s spectacular landscapes to great effect, the film uses imposing clifftops, geysers, waterfalls, and coastal regions as backdrop for an authentic recreation of the nation’s commonwealth age.

More than a historical drama, it is a complex tale of doomed love that also explore’s the futility of revenge and religion’s hypocrisies. Relatively unknown in English-speaking territories, the film is the most significant cinematic adaptation of the legend since Jean Delannoy’s L’Éternel retour.

A subtitled DVD is available to order fron Nammi.is

DVD Review: Jitters

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Teenage Kicks: Baldvin Z’s debut feature film is a sympathetically sketched portrait of self-discovery.

Icelandic filmmaker Baldvin Z has rapidly established himself as one of the most exciting directors to emerge on the Nordic scene in recent years. In addition to helming three episodes of Trapped, he wrote and produced the black comedy series Hæ gosi. His feature film Life in a Fishbowl was 2014’s most successful Icelandic film. More recently he directed the gripping Nordic Noir series Case.

Producing films since the age of 11, his early work was screened at local cinemas and on Icelandic TV. Baldvin’s professional career began when he directed a commercial in 2004. He subsequently attended filmmaking workshops in Norway and Denmark. Upon his return to Iceland he directed the short film Planet Earth. The short was screened at the Northern Wave International Film Festival where cinephiles noted that Baldvin was an obvious talent to watch.

Making the transition to feature-length motion pictures, Baldvin released his debut Jitters in 2010. The film is an adaptation of a pair of books by actor, screenwriter, and novelist Ingibjorg Reynisdottir who collaborated on the screenplay with. Baldvin.

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Filmed in Iceland and the UK, Jitters is a coming-of-age story focusing on a group of Reykjavik teenagers as they explore their sexuality, form emotional bonds, and struggle to define their place in contemporary Icelandic society.

Comparisons to E4’s teen comedy drama Skins ignore Nordic cinema’s long history of producing youth related content. Several Icelandic filmmakers have directed rites-of-passage movies including Þorsteinn Jónsson’s Dot, Dot, Comma, Dash and Runar Runarsson’s Sparrows. Baldvin Z’s film fits within a longstanding tradition of using film to dramatize growing pains and the Nordic condition.

An assured feature-length debut, Jitters offers a non-judgemental view of life as a teenager in the aftermath of Iceland’s economic turmoil. The director has crafted a compassionate narrative which wisely resists the all too obvious temptations to patronize and sensationalize the teenage experience. Understated and intimate, Jitters continued relevance is, in part, due to it being a relatively early example of an Icelandic film exploring LGBT-related issues.

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Chaos and confusion of the teenager experience is contrasted with a cynical view of parenthood. Emphasising the narrative’s allegiance to youth, adults are presented as controlling, narrow-minded, and having limited emotional intelligence. Father type figures are shown to be weak, and inefficient. Mothers and grandmothers are represented as suffocating and destructive.

Leading the ensemble cast is Atli Óskar Fjalarsson (Sparrows) who plays Gabriel a student unsure about his place in the world and taking tentative steps on a voyage of self-discovery. Enrolled on a study programme in Manchester by his domineering mother, he shares a dormitory with Markus (Haraldur Ari Stefansson). Two young lives are transformed by three weeks in a foreign land.

Temporarily free from parental influence the pair embrace the opportunity to experience new sensations.

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They return to Reykjavik as very different people and soon friends and family start to notice changes have occurred. Gabriel’s emotional and sexual experimentation has left him in a state of confusion. Unsure about how to reconcile his newly discovered sexuality he is initially in a state of denial. Gabriel busies himself providing a shoulder for his friends to cry on as he tries to reach a state of acceptance.

Baldvin’s ensemble cast is a mixture of new and established actors. Among the faces familiar to UK viewers are Þorsteinn Bachmann (Trapped, Life in a Fishbowl, Case, Volcano), Gísli Örn Garðarsson (Beowulf, City State, Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time), and Ingibjörg Reynisdottir (Case, The Day Shift).

Jitters‘ cinematic release revealed the emergence of a fully formed artistic voice. Themes and stylistic techniques the director would return to in Life in a Fishbowl and Case are present in Jitters.

An uncompromising snapshot of young life in Reykjavik. Jitters portrayal of youthful exuberance and confusion meshes universal themes with a distinctly localized perspective. Sharp and brutally honest, the film tells an emotionally powerful story far removed from American teenage comedies overloaded with saccharine humour and quirkiness.

Jitters is available to order from Amazon