We can see the love and respect between Icelandic farmers Maria (Noomi Rapace) and Ingvar (Hilmir Snær Guðnason, "101 Reykjavík") yet they speak little as they go about their daily chores, burdened by something unseen. The wild horses out on the tundra appear fearful out in the white that envelops the wintery landscape in snow and mist, the farmers’ own sheep startled in their barn on Christmas Eve. But a springtime surprise returns joy to the farm with the birthing of an extraordinary “Lamb.”
Laura's Review: B-
The debut feature from cowriter (with "Dancer in the Dark's" Sjón)/director Valdimar Jóhannsson plays like a Greek tragedy shot through with Christmas symbolism, “Little Otik” and “Stuart Little” and that the whole doesn’t come off as preposterous is due to the filmmaker’s tonal control. There is always a sense of foreboding, whether from nature or an outside human intrusion, aided by Eli Arenson’s cinematography, Þórarinn Guðnason’s musical soundscape or the expressions of animals Jóhannsson exhibits an uncanny knack for capturing.
Take, for example, the black and white Icelandic sheepdog known only as Dog. This alert pup is always watchful, alarmed by a rope toy which falls from an upstairs window. Then there is the distressed ewe we saw fall on its side on Christmas Eve, constantly bleating beneath that same window, its eyes showing both yearning and concern. It is the fate of this ewe, shown in the film’s second, middle chapter that augurs the film’s third act tragedy. This chapter also brings Pétur (Björn Hlynur Haraldsson, TV's 'Fortitude' and 'The Witcher'), Ingvar’s failed rock musician brother, to the farm to upset its delicate balance. When Pétur witnesses the change in his brother and sister-in-law’s life, he asks in blunt terms what is going on. ‘Happiness’ replies Ingvar. The film’s third chapter will see Pétur come around and for a while all seems well, but when he steps over a line on one raucous evening when Ingvar uncharacteristically drinks too much and is put in bed, he is sent packing by Maria, only to invite a more formidable reckoning.
The film has a slow build (it is executive produced by Hungarian master Bela Tarr, a mentor of Jóhannsson’s) and a hushed atmosphere, as if the celluloid itself were holding its breath. Rapace is the most central of the characters and the actress establishes Maria (she of the virgin birth) as a sorrowful woman who, given joy, will become fiercely, even coldly, protective of it. There is tenderness between Rapace and Guðnason, whose Ingvar is loyal and hard working. Haraldsson is well cast as his brother, the two bearing a familial resemblance, but otherwise a total contrast. And while I have avoided spoilers throughout, it must be said that Ada, that first chapter surprise, is startlingly depicted by ten human actors, two puppeteers, and a visual effects team.
The film ends with a surprise that also renders all that has come before rather simplistic folk lore of the ‘don’t mess with Mother Nature’ variety, but the outstanding incorporation of animals into the eerily atmospheric film makes for an intriguing watch.
Robin's Review: B
A husband, Ingvar (Hilmar Snaer Guonason), and wife, Marie (Noomi Rapace) works hard on their sheep farm somewhere in rugged and remote Iceland. It is lambing season and they go about their day-to-day chores helping the ewes have their babies. But, one baby turns out to be very special and will bring great joy to the childless couple in “Lamb.”
I think this is a first for me as a film lover – a weird and creepy Icelandic fairytale. And, it is from a first time feature helmer Valdimar Johannsson who also co-wrote the script with Sjon, and it is a dilly, crossing “Tom Thumb (1958)” with “Little Otik (2000).” (If you are not familiar with those odd little gems, then you have something to look forward to.)
I will leave what the “very special” baby is for the viewer to find out. I will leave it that some will find the reveal fascinating while other might consider it to be an abomination, even for a fairytale. I found that, for me, it is a combination of the two observations/feelings.
The director’s skill at telling a minimalist folktale about a childless couple surviving in the Icelandic wilderness, birthing lambs until the special one lands in their hands. The big revelation left me feeling a bit squeamish but that is OK. The quality of the film, its actors and rugged locale – and an extremely satisfying, for me, wrap up – helps push the nauseous feelings aside.
A24 opens "Lamb" in theaters on 10/8/21.