CAST: Noomi Rapace, Hilmir Snær Guðnason, Björn Hlynur Haraldsson, Ingvar Eggert Sigurðsson
RUNNING TIME: 106 mins
BASICALLY…: On an Icelandic farm, a childless couple find a mysterious creature amongst their flock of sheep…
NOW FOR THE REVIEW…
At some point in recent history, Icelandic filmmaker Valdimar Jóhannsson decided to channel the dry absurdism of Yorgos Lanthimos’ The Lobster into a touching family saga which happens to feature anthropomorphic animals. Consensus as to whether his resulting film Lamb achieved its ambitions is still up for debate, as it is understandably dividing critics and audiences left and right, but I will say this about the movie: it’s definitely conversation-worthy.
Jóhannsson marks his feature debut with a story set on a remote farm in Iceland, where childless couple María (Noomi Rapace) and Ingvar (Hilmir Snær Guðnason) live very unremarkable lives, ploughing the fields and tending to their sheep while sharing mundane conversations in-between. One day, they find that one of their sheep has given birth to a mysterious lamb-human hybrid, which they immediately adopt as their own child; no questions asked about how or why this creature has come into existence, and instead they simply accept this bizarre situation and the benefits it gives them. As if that wasn’t strange enough, the lamb’s mother is constantly harassing the couple for its offspring back, and the arrival of Ingvar’s brother Pétur (Björn Hlynur Haraldsson) lays the scene for even stranger confrontations.
For a movie that is always asking its audience to suspend their disbelief at every available opportunity, it is still very hard to accept that at no point in this movie does anyone ask this couple straight-up, “did one of you shag a sheep?” Honestly, I was kind of waiting for that line to come up because it seems like a very reasonable thing to ask of a couple whose child is this weird combination of a human body and the head of a lamb, but this is a movie where rationality is more of a suggestion than a strict rule of life. Valdimar Jóhannsson’s direction and writing seems to exist on a slightly different plane of reality, where the strangest things are met with stoicism and blind acceptance, with even characters who come in and start asking the right kinds of questions eventually giving into the madness surrounding them. It’s an approach which can easily put off viewers expecting clarity or at the very least a sense of realism, but then again it’s about a child who’s part-human and part-lamb so maybe it is asking too much to expect anything to make logical sense in this universe.
Beyond the inherently strange concept, Lamb may also struggle to connect with average viewers because there isn’t much to grasp onto with the main characters. Both Noomi Rapace (whose grasp on the Icelandic language is impressive when you remember she’s Swedish) and Hilmir Snær Guðnason do well in the movie, but their characters are ones who aren’t particularly interesting; perhaps this is the point, seeing how they live rather boring lives with little to no contact with the outside world, but we still need to watch a movie about these people and unfortunately there’s little about them to make the audience care enough about their odd behaviour throughout. The more interesting characters are, in fact, the animals; there are some good reaction shots from these sheep, with the hybrid’s mother in particular gaining an entire personality just from the way it is shot and framed, while the anthropomorphic young lamb itself is a likeable little creation, so long as you get past some of the awkwardness with the CGI used to put a lamb’s head on a child’s body (not that it’s bad, but could have used extra cash in the budget to polish up a bit).
It’s also the kind of movie that doesn’t have a completely concrete plot, with most of the events surrounding this concept just simply happening in a somewhat episodic format. The only time when things actually do start to pick up in terms of plot development is about ten minutes from the ending, by which point surprisingly little has happened that it almost takes you a minute to climatise to this sudden fast pace and new sense of tension. It’s a slight relief, because the slow-burn approach that Lamb adopts seems mismatched, no matter what Jóhannsson’s intentions may have been. Because the plot doesn’t have a clear structure, and the (human) characters aren’t particularly interesting, it makes the film feel a lot longer and less engaging, which again for a movie that specifically revolves around a lamb-human hybrid seems like a somewhat wasted opportunity.
The film is certainly well-made, with moody fog-lit cinematography literally clouding the isolated atmosphere and making for some sweet shots, but Lamb perhaps operates too much on its own terms to fully open up to audiences. It’s the kind of movie you can easily see gaining a cult following over time for how strange and bizarrely it treats the already weird premise, though it’ll be even more interesting to see if people can make it a certain way through, having been sold on the idea alone, before moving on to something that’s a bit more to their tastes.
SO, TO SUM UP…
Lamb is a strange execution of an even stranger concept, with writer-director Valdimar Jóhannsson emphasising too much of the dry absurdism to construct interesting human characters or a concrete narrative for the audience to fully engage with this weird situation.