With her lyrical take on a familiar coming-of-age trope — a summer in the country — writer-director Asa Helga Hjorleifsdottir conjures a strong sense of place, viewed through the eyes of a hyperalert 9-year-old girl. Based on a 1991 novel by the celebrated Icelandic writer Guobergur Bergsson (one of his few works to be translated into English), The Swan is a story in which storytelling itself is a key element. The child’s discovery of the beauty of nature, the workaday brutalities of farm life, and the adult world’s disappointments and betrayals rings true, to a point, and the young actress in the role is memorably guarded and watchful. In Hjorleifsdottir’s adaptation, though, the themes are too studied and neat, playing out in a way that can feel oppressive rather than revelatory.
Visually impressive but far from subtle.
Grima Valsdottir plays the aggrieved Sol, whose mother packs her off from their coastal home to the remote farm of a great-aunt the girl has never met. There’s a brief allusion to an instance of stealing as the reason for this turn of events. But while the adults define it as a character-building lesson, Sol experiences punishment pure and simple, chalking it up to her mother’s weakness as she deals with a broken marriage. It’s hard to disagree with the child’s point of view, and the grown-ups she spends time with over the summer only deepen her disillusionment with the ways of the world and a child’s place in it.
Sol is a storyteller, her decidedly dark once-upon-a-time imaginings, heard in voiceover, a kind of self-mythologizing. Back home, her stories revolve around a girl who swims to such depths that she’s nearly strangled by seaweed; once Sol’s in the mountainous terrain of her relatives’ farm, the girl in her tales struggles to breathe after sinking into the dirt. One of the people Sol gets to know best — in unsettling ways — is also a storyteller, the farmhand (Porvaldur Davio Kristjansson) who spends his nights working on his own self-mythologizing, in the form of journal entries.
A wounded soul, he none too subtly encapsulates the film’s twisted heart: He’s the most fully realized and sympathetic adult character but also the creepiest. He’s certainly the only one who recognizes Sol’s intelligence, yet in his bitterness he can’t resist toying with her innocence. When he quotes a line from a Tarkovsky film at the dinner table, Sol’s great-aunt (Katla Margret Porgeirsdottir) and great-uncle (Ingvar E. Sigurosson of Everest) respond with uncomprehending silence. The raw utilitarian rhythms of working the land are their only philosophy, much to the disdain of their college-age daughter (Puriour Blaer Johannsdottir), who lashes out at everyone in ways that heavy-handedly signal the personal problems she’ll soon divulge.
Her graphic confessions to Sol are some of the cruelest transgressions the girl will endure, but the summer visitor’s education will be complete only with the slaughter of an animal she’s bonded with. What lifts that scene from the predictable and obvious and makes it stirring is the way the child, with the old soul of an artist, implores the doomed calf to “take one last look at the world.”
That world, in The Swan, is not for the fainthearted. It’s a dark fable spun from broken spirits, nature’s startling beauty and the myth of a mountain monster that can disguise itself as the elegant title creature. Hjorleifsdottir gives Sol’s world a unifying palette, with production designer Drifa Freyju-Armannsdottir carrying the greens and blues of the landscape into the farmhouse interiors, but setting off the room of Sol’s troubled cousin as a separate realm, sensuous and arty. And though a certain artiness undermines some of Hjorleifsdottir’s visual flourishes, cinematographer Martin Neumeyer’s work always captures the emotional power of the child’s experience.
With its overstated themes of life and death, The Swan threatens to sink like the protagonist in Sol’s made-up stories. It doesn’t always manage to stay afloat, but its center never wavers, with Valsdottir delivering a bracingly unsentimental portrayal of a perceptive outsider weathering an often grim awakening.
Production companies: Vintage Pictures, Junafilm, Kopli Kinokompanii
Distributor: Synergetic Distribution
Cast: Grima Valsdottir, Porvaldur Davío Kristjansson, Puriour Blaer Johannsdottir, Katla Margret Porgeirsdottir, Ingvar E. Sigurosson
Director: Asa Helga Hjorleifsdottir
Screenwriter: Asa Helga Hjorleifsdottir
Based on the novel by Guobergur Bergsson
Producers: Birgitta Bjornsdottir, Hlin Johannesdottir
Executive producer: Guobjorg Siguroardottir
Director of photography: Martin Neumeyer
Production designer: Drífa Freyju-Armannsdottir
Costume designer: Sylvia Halldorsdottir/Lovetank
Editors: Sebastian Thumler, Elisabet Ronaldsdottir
Composers: Gunnar Orn Tynes, Orvar Smarason