Lamb ★★★★

After Pig, there was Lamb; another animal-themed genre-bender for 2021. I was going to start this off by calling it “Rosemary’s Baaby”, but not surprisingly, some other clever clogs on here has already beaten me to the punch (and I was so proud of myself, too). Don’t read too much into this pithy piece of wordplay though—it doesn’t begin to unpack the truth about this bizarre little Icelandic oddity.

Needless to say, I really liked this one, though I’m not at all surprised to find it has been met with a mixed response. Whether the film succeeds or fails for you will rest largely on whether you are able to get over the peculiarities of its setup—and it is a really odd setup. Expectations can so often hamstring an experience too, and while the film’s promotional trailer gave us a pretty strong indication of the weirdness in store, it also somewhat misleadingly suggested that viewers should expect an unsettling horror experience first and foremost. The same goes for the film’s chilling intro sequence, which sets the scene and seemingly lets the audience know precisely what kind of movie they are in; but the tone of the narrative after this point is very different. There are certainly elements of folklorish horror to be found dotted throughout the story—and some of these moments are genuinely dark and sinister—but they are few and far between. In reality, the film acts primarily as a family-oriented drama, and some might understandably find this a touch disappointing, or even off-putting; but I found it to be the opposite.

Admittedly, it took me a little while to settle into the film’s bizarre scenario. After the aforementioned intro (which is a really good one, it has to be said) we arrive at a stunning, remote mountain smallholding in rural Iceland. There’s very little dialogue at all in the first twenty-odd minutes, and when it does surface it does so occasionally in ways that are frustratingly on the nose. But on the whole, the film exercises great restraint and doesn’t give too much away. We ascertain quite early on that our central couple, María and Ingvar, have lost a child, perhaps in the recent past. This fact isn’t explicitly stated, and we never learn the full truth about the tragedy, but the reality is made plainly apparent to us (both with some rather artificial dinner-table chat about time travel, and with the image of a grave). There are also other aspects to the couple’s backstory (and Noomi Rapace’s character, María, especially) that are implied here without being expressly stated (including a previous affair with Ingvar’s brother, Pétur, who turns up out of the blue in odd circumstances later on). I liked the way these details were dangled in front of us without being expanded on—layers to our characters that aren’t immediately apparent, that are left as something for us to question and think about throughout.

Enough of these key details are established early on to make the arrival of the titular “Lamb”, and its subsequent adoption by our central couple, seem entirely reasonable—and believe me, that last statement is quite a surprising one to admit, given the nature of this Lamb’s origins, as well as its appearance. The thing that struck me, however, was how cleverly the film constantly toyed with my emotions. I watched this in a reasonably busy theatre, and the Lamb’s first full-scale reveal brought a wave of sniggers from the audience. Such was the unnatural appearance of the creature, I found myself laughing along with everyone around me; but these chuckles quickly evaporated. Clearly the lamb’s appearance is meant to unsettle us to begin with—and it succeeds—but it’s remarkable how quickly we then adjust to the situation. It felt to me as if the film was challenging our prejudices; testing our reaction and seeing if we would accept this “Lamb” as it is. Obviously, this creature and the world we see here is all the stuff of fantasy, but underlying it all the film asks us to question something that is fundamentally real and very human. This couple treat the Lamb’s arrival as a gift, and they nurture it as any loving parents would their own child. So the film seems to ask of us: why should we treat this Lamb any differently ourselves?

This must all seem completely absurd to read—and, well, it is—but there’s an honesty here that really works; and ultimately, it is something that I found very emotionally engaging. The story here is a tragic one at heart: it is about two people coming to terms with their grief and finding solace in the unexpected; but it is also a heartwarming one—so much of the story revolves around a handful of individuals bridging old relationships and rebuilding the life they once yearned to have, before it was so cruelly snatched away from them. It all just happens to be woven around a fable-like tale that has one hoof firmly planted in the realm of fantasy (with a dab of pure horror thrown in for good measure).

The truth is, the film simply refuses to adhere to one strict genre or mood, and that really struck a chord with me (much in the same way Pig did). It toys with our expectations, and it doesn’t offer much in the way of explanation for anything that unfolds. So much of it is a fragmented mystery, left for us to piece together ourselves. It is a film that will leave you with far more questions than answers, but to me that is part of its strength (and to date these questions still swim about in my head). In terms of tone, this is a film that is simultaneously buzzing with love and warmth, and shrouded by death and despair—moments of tender affection and laughter are broken by moments that are downright cruel and callous. It is by turns bizarre, baffling, funny, chilling, endearing, unsettling, menacing, horrifying, heartwarming, and completely devastating—a confusing mix of emotions, to say the least. But I relished this confusion, and it really left its mark on me.

It’s not even my favourite ovine-themed, family-oriented Icelandic drama—that prize currently sits with the excellent Rams—but it for sure comes a very close second.

P.S. I also wanted to mention just how great the “animal acting” is in this (seriously); something that’s easy to take for granted. From the petrified sheep turning their heads in unison as some unearthly presence enters their storm-battered barn, to the mewing ewe pleading to be reunited with her separated offspring, to the tabby cat whose unimpressed expression seems to perfectly reflect the audience’s general bemusement—every animal here deserves a well earned pet on the back.

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