The Juniper Tree (1990)


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A black and white oddity, this restored copy of the 1990 film by American Nietzchka Keene is known primarily as singer Björk’s first feature film.

Filmed in Iceland in 1986, it took several years to complete editing and obtain a cinematic release. Based on a Brothers Grimm tale of the same name, it tells of two sisters, Margit (Björk) and Katla (Bryndis Petra Bragadóttir), on the run after their mother is stoned and burnt as a witch. They find a widower Jóhan (Valdimar Örn Flygenring) and his young son Jónas (Geirlaug Sunna Thormar) and, although Katla doesn’t have the sight like their mother and Margit, she knows how to cast a spell. She makes Jóhan fall in love with her and take them in. Jónas is not fooled though and knows that the spirit of his dead mother is unhappy.

The pacing of the film is slow with some clunky edits and cuts between scenes but this adds to its oddball charm. The untamed landscapes of Iceland, with towering rocks, steaming springs and wild waterfalls evoke the feel of a fairytale, albeit not a Disney one. It helps make it believable that spells work, mothers become birds and men can be bewitched. As this is a Grimm’s tale, there is a touch of the macabre that made the Sunday night MIFF audience flinch. It’s elegantly done though.

Björk is immensely watchable, looking like a young adolescent despite her 20 years and recent motherhood. She is fey and credible as someone in touch with the seen and unseen. There are a few scenes where she sings simple tunes and they bring a frisson of recognition at her ethereal voice.

The narrative is a bit complex and is not helped by the Icelandic cast speaking English. I had to do a bit of Googling afterwards to get a better understanding of what exactly was happening and so was left charmed but mildly confused.

Have you seen this film? Let me know your thoughts in the comments below.

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