LAMB ****

Directed by Valdimar Jóhannsson.
Starring Noomi Rapace, Hilmir Snær Guðnason, Björn Hlynur Haraldsson.
 Horror, Iceland, 106 minutes, certificate 15.

Released in cinemas in the UK December 10th by MUBI.


A heavy atmosphere of pervading dread hangs over Valdimar Jóhannsson’s LAMB from its opening scene to its last. An impressive feat on its own but especially so for a film that features perhaps one of the cutest characters outside of any animated film released over the last few years. Anthropomorphising reaches a new level with the half human, half lamb creature a sheep gives birth to after a mysterious entity visits the isolated farm of couple Ingvar and Maria. A largely dialogue free opening act establishes this as well as inferring to an incident in the couples past that could provide the motivation for them raising the endearing yet unnerving creature as their own and naming it Ada. An action that does not go down well with Ada’s actual mother.


Ingvar and Maria’s raising of Ada continues without questioning the how and why of her existence. Clothing her, feeding her and sitting on the couch for some quality TV time all proceed like normal giving the film a hybrid feeling of its own, splicing domestic drama with folk horror. The mix of genres works extremely well here as the mystery and threat of what Ada’s father, whatever it is, always seems to be lurking just outside the frame. The couple’s attachment to Ada is simultaneously troubling and touching, especially with the way they show no fear in letting Ada roam around the house freely when Ingvar’s brother Pétur arrives for an unexpected visit and does not exactly hide his feelings about the creature.


The films outlandish premise provides fertile ground for exploring a number of themes including grief, parenthood and jealousy in its various forms. The opening tracking shot of a windswept, snow blasted environment sets out the harsh and otherworldly implication that something dark, whether it is nature itself or something altogether more otherworldly, is at play here. Supporting the small human cast is an equally impressive roster of animals who each have their own supporting arcs, most notably Ada’s jealous and enraged biological mother and the loyal sheepdog who seems to know that something is wrong with this entire situation.


With all of this going on beneath and above the surface it shows the skill that Jóhannsson, directing from a script with Bjork collaborator and novelist/poet Sjón, brings to the table here in his debut feature. The story, as well as backstory, is told almost entirely visually without the need for explanatory or extraneous dialogue. The idyllic, Icelandic landscape captured by cinematographer Eli Arenson, provides a beautiful backdrop for the discomforting story that slowly but surely plays out to a surprising yet inevitable ending.


At over one hundred minutes it may sag a little as it goes along, especially in its later stages. However, this a small niggle for such a singular film. Eschewing the creature feature or nature gone wrong cliches and instead focusing on very human and universal themes and emotions through its mythical and folk horror lens, it makes LAMB a very haunting experience indeed that lingers long in your thoughts after a single viewing.


Iain MacLeod.


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