Animal Instinct


by Hope Madden

Among the many remarkable elements buoying the horror fable Lamb is filmmaker Valdimar Jóhannsson’s ability to tell a complete and riveting tale without a single word of exposition.

Not one. So, pay attention.

Rather than devoting dialog to explaining to us what it is we are seeing, Jóhannsson relies on impressive visual storytelling instincts, answering questions as they come up with a gravesite, a crib coming out of storage, a glance, a bleat.

His cast of three – well, four, I guess — sells the fairy tale. A childless couple working a sheep farm in Iceland find an unusual newborn lamb and take her in as their own child. As is always the way in old school fables, though, there is much magical happiness but a dire recompense soon to come.

Noomi Rapace is the stand-out, her character’s emotional arc from melancholy to longing to joy expressed physically as Maria goes about each day’s tasks. Hilmir Snær Guðnason’s tenderness as husband Ingvar offers a lovely balance while offering an intriguing change of pace for fairy tale archetypes.

Jóhannsson, making an astounding feature debut behind the camera, strikes a balance between reality and unreality, beginning with startlingly authentic farming scenes. He casts a spell with the ruggedly gorgeous scenery, the unending but mastered workload of the farm, and its isolation.

The rare dialog exchanges are meaningful but not obvious. When a brother shows up rather inauspiciously, conflict arrives with him, but even here the sly storytelling will keep you guessing while still giving you all you really need to know.

There is a cruelty in the justice meted out in old school fairy tales, and that element has generally been softened for modern sensibilities. Ariel didn’t get the prince, she turned into sea foam while he married another. The gods of yore weren’t swayed by compassion or sentimentality.

That’s another line Jóhannsson and his stellar cast walk perfectly: we love and root for this family, even as we recognize the selfishness and unwholesomeness beneath their joy.

Lamb is an absolutely gorgeous, entirely unusual and expertly crafted gem of a film. You should see it.

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