Under the Tree Review
We have certain expectations of Icelandic cinema by now; deadpan black comedies often featuring outsiders, misfits and eccentrics living in an hostile environment of the wild, great beauty of the land that at the same time emphasises their alienation but also gives it some kind of mythic grandeur. Hafsteinn Gunnar Sigurðsson's Under the Tree features very much the same kind of characters struggling with the personal difficulties that their environment brings, but this time it's a little closer to civilisation.
The tree in question - very much a potent symbol - is one in the garden of Atli's parents. The tree has grown somewhat and is bothering the neighbours, casting a shadow over their porch. As you might imagine sunshine is a precious resource in Iceland but so too are trees, particularly in a suburban environment. Atli has moved back in with his parents due to his own domestic problems; his wife Agnes has thrown him out of his apartment after discovering him watching a sex tape he had made with an old girlfriend.
As you might expect, a familiar stand-off situation develops between Atli and his wife and between his parents and their neighbours. It's all fairly domestic drama stuff, tensions rising over what are seemingly minor matters and quickly escalating as one side and then the other take what they feel is justified retaliatory action without considering the impact it has on innocent bystanders like Atli and Agnes's four year old daughter and the family pets. The only question is how far this it going to go before one or the other of the disputing parties causes serious irreversible damage.
The plot is simple enough in detailing how badly relationships can break down over small disputes or misunderstandings, but it's realistic of human nature, of the manner in which people behave and also considerate of the fact that people don't always react or behave in a way that is explicable or rational. There are also suggestions of other factors - such as the disappearance of Atli's brother Uggi, now believed dead - that might play an indirect part in those behaviours to an extent that is impossible to determine. The mind is sensitive and fragile however and there's only so much pressure a person can take.
Under the Tree is realistic to an extent, but only up to a point. Sigurðsson builds up those tensions credibly with small accumulations, with good observations about people's behaviours that we are indeed familiar with from other Icelandic films - most recently in the two feuding brothers in Rams (which itself has echoes with Gogol's The Tale of How Ivan Ivanovich Quarreled with Ivan Nikiforovich (1835). So for sure these characteristics are universally recognisable and grimly fascinating, but the location this time works against any attempt to elevate a domestic suburban quarrel into the realm of (urban) myth, folk tale or allegorical fable.
Under the Tree is released on a Dual Format BD/DVD in the UK by Eureka! and their Montage Pictures label. The film goes for a very muted pale colour scheme with a softer image that the Blu-ray disc presents well. The film's original 2.39:1 aspect ratio is preserved. The audio mix is DTS HD Master Audio 5.1, and English subtitles are optional. The extras consist of a 25-minute making of, based around interviews with Steinþór Hróar Steinþórsson and Edda Björgvinsdóttir - better known as comedy actors in Iceland, which may indeed bring another dimension to them playing dark drama - and with the director, showing how they went about building a sycamore tree. The film's Trailer is also included.