Lamb (Dýrið)

Iceland (2021) Dir. Valdimar Jóhannsson

You’ve heard the jokes about the Welsh and their alleged romantic fondness for ovine company but – I hope – they are just cruel jokes, and if there is a truth to this, I don’t really want to know about it. Meanwhile, over in Iceland…

Husband and wife farmers Ingvar (Hilmir Snær Guðnason) and Maria (Noomi Rapace) rear sheep in a remote part of the Icelandic countryside. Many of their ewes are giving birth with one producing two healthy lambs, whilst another delivers an unusual lamb which they take into the home rather than leave with its mother. Maria cradles the lamb and cares for it as if it were a human baby.

Named Ada after the daughter they lost, this behaviour might seem strange but in fact, Ada is half lamb/half human, giving Maria and Ingvar a second chance at being parents. However, Ada’s biological sheep mother becomes embroiled in a struggle with Maria over Ada, whilst Ingvar’s brother Pétur (Björn Hlynur Haraldsson) arrives after getting into trouble, and has problems reconciling this bizarre set up.

I really don’t know where to start with this. The concept of Lamb sounds like something Takashi Miike would conjure up only 1000 times more nightmarish and abstract, yet this being Scandinavian, one could see possible links to its rich fantasy folklore in the story. Who knows – maybe there is a tale about a human family who adopt a sheep or some form of animal as their own offspring somewhere in their history.

Valdimar Jóhannsson has crafted a quiet, effective film to support this personal theory though I suspect he just wanted to address grief and messing with Mother Nature in an extreme way. A former special effects assistant with credits including Game Of Thrones and Rogue One, this is quite a sedate debut for someone used to working on livelier and more bombastic projects, or maybe the stripped back experience was the lure for him.

Opening with an ominous shot of a group of horses being spooked by something against a dusky skyline on a wide-open rustic plain, we are immediately transported into a world that is simultaneously picturesque and eerie. Whatever is casting its negative presence on the horses has upset the sheep on the farm yet Ingvar and Maria are none the wiser – at least until Ada is born.

For the first 40 minutes or so, action is sparse, quotidian, and quiet. Barely any dialogue is shared between husband and wife, implying their bond to border on the symbiotic or at least telepathic. When Ada pops out, no discussion follows – Maria cuddles this odd hybrid and takes it to the house and Ingvar doesn’t challenge a thing, not even later when she bottle-feeds Ada in her human cot.

Admittedly, I wish I didn’t have to reveal so early on the unique aspect of Ada’s being as Jóhannsson cleverly keeps this a secret for quite a while until her real mother kidnaps her. Up until then, all we saw was Ada’s head peering out from under a blanket, leading us to assume she was poorly and Maria was nursing her back to health before handing her back to her ovine mother.

Unfortunately, this is as far as the depth of the subtext goes and Jóhannsson isn’t keen to share more of what makes Maria and Ingvar tick. It is not until much later we learn they lost a daughter, a significant clue as to why they took Ada as their own. Pétur’s arrival brings more questions with implied frisson between him and Maria from once being in a pop dup together, whilst Pétur himself debuts by being dragged out of the boot of a car and dumped in the wilderness.

Pétur speaks on behalf of the audience by asking Ingvar what the (hell) this is, to which Ingvar replies “Happiness”. Initially, Pétur rejects any notion that Ada is human, feeding her grass which she accepts despite eating human food at the dinner table. Jóhannsson plays with this idea by inserting sequences which may be prescient nightmares or horrific reality, both are applicable.

Referring back to the Welsh jokes, I am sure there are a lot of people likely to suspect how Ada came to be, even if it is nigh on implausible the result is what we see here, and I wonder if we are supposed to think this. Yet Ingvar and Maria are rock solid and very much devoted to each other in their cosy farmhouse with the curious dog and cynical cat, the former uneasy around Ada for some unexplained reason.

But only unexplained until the final five minutes. Lamb has been labelled a horror which I dispute, despite the uncomfortable atmosphere and lack of scares and gore, yet I can’t remember the last time I yelled out “Whoa!” at a reveal in a film. You may be wondering why I don’t include the half sheep, half child as “upsetting” – this would be due to Ada actually being oddly cute, with her expressionless sheep face playing with our hearts.  

Kudos to whoever was under the sheep mask (or CGI overlay) for making Ada so real and sympathetic, in contrast to Noomi Rapace’s emotionally burned and morally dubious Maria, her best turn since Lisbeth Salander. Hilmir Snær Guðnason keeps Ingvar on an even keel, with little nuance about how he feels, whilst Björn Hlynur Haraldsson brings the intrusive edge as Pétur.

The cinematography is rather exquisite given the misty vistas of the dour hills and flat greens of the countryside, yet somehow it makes it all seem inviting. For a first time director, Jóhannsson has a feeling of the auteur about him, found in the precision of the shots and starkness of the moods, at times recalling von Trier’s Anti Christ.

Quite the provocative debut, Lamb is a bold, understated work of tone and texture, but needs to be a little less oblique about what it wants to say.

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