Gemma Creagh takes a look at woolly folk thriller Lamb.
In its native Icelandic, the film Lamb goes under the title of “The Animal”. This 2021 indigenous folk horror/drama is the feature-length directorial debut of Valdimar Jóhannsson, who co-wrote the screenplay with poet and novelist Sjón.
The prologue opens on the harsh, snow-covered, rural Icelandic landscape at Christmas, something sinister spooks a group of horses, and the sheep on this isolated farm bustle and barge their way through their enclosure. Later when Spring breaks, it’s lambing season, and we’re introduced to the day-to-day drudgery of the farm work – Ingvar (Hilmir Snær Guðnason) hangs up his winter coat as he gets to work, followed by his loyal sheepdog while his partner, Maria (Noomi Rapace), who mans the machinery, their land dwarfed between huge mountains. This is a couple with little to say, their interactions are stilted, distant, their paths rarely cross on their vast stretch of acreage.
Birthing one of the lambs, the couple exchange a pointed look – this lamb is something special. They take the newborn inside and lovingly feed her with a bottle. As they care for the little creature, Maria and Ingvar’s bond deepens. They raise her like she was their own, placing a cot next to their bed – their little Ada. The couple become frantic when the lamb goes missing, and is rescued by her birth mother, the same sheep that calls outside their window every day. This elicits a deep well of uncharacteristic jealousy in Maria. With the unexpected arrival of Ingvar’s brother, Piotr (Björn Hlynur Haraldsson) their insular domestic bliss is impeded upon and things start to take a sinister turn..
Utilising a deft hand in curating this film’s aesthetic, Jóhannsson relies on minimal dialogue to convey the distance between the couple as well as their unnatural relationship with their adopted offspring. It’s quite beautiful to behold. Prior to shooting this film, his credits span the Camera and Electrical Department of some major international productions – a skillset he brings to framing and capturing the changing mood of the wild terrain. However, with regards to the CG creatures and sheep, the uncanny valley is just too deep, which is off-putting and in those initial scenes before we’ve invested in the premise.
While the lack of dialogue works well, the absence of plot does not. The pacing, which can be mood building in folk horror, is just excruciatingly slow and punctuated by the bare minimum of shocking moments, surreal reveals or violence against animals to keep us engaged (and vaguely tense). It’s important to note, that this is certainly not an easy watch for vegans or sensitive animal lovers of any kind. The themes of grief and loneliness are only halfway explored and characters as written are somewhat underdeveloped, however Jóhannsson did an outstanding job with his micro-cast. Swedish actress Rapace (Lisbeth Salander from the Swedish version of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo) brings such authenticity as a grieving mother, that she plasters over any of the aforementioned cracks in the narrative, and completely sells what, in less skilled hands, would be a rather silly film. Her on-screen chemistry with Ada and Snær Guðnason is subtle and deeply truthful, making this film a very challenging watch indeed.