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MOVIES - Lamb - Review

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Lamb is a delightfully odd experience that just builds and builds – its remote atmosphere of an isolated farmland is its biggest strength – it’s often a cliché to compare the setting to a secondary character but in the case of Valdimar Jóhannsson’s latest entry to the folk horror canon, it’s an accurate description. The rolling fog is ever present, creating a unique sense of foreboding – the film makes you feel as lonely as the characters are watching it, even in a packed theatre.

The film is tonally pitch black, but with a fair share of comedy – as you’d expect from a situation where a sheep gives birth to a half-human, half-lamb hybrid in the middle of a storm. It’s the beginnings of a tale straight out of folklore, except that this folklore doesn’t have a happy ending. To their credit – the lamb is quickly adopted by its owners and treated, raised as a stand-in for the couple’s dead daughter, but the lamb’s mother constantly tries to pull her away into the unknown and the couple’s original pets, a cat and a dog – want nothing to do with the new arrival in the household. Neither too does Björn Hlynur Haraldsson’s Petur, who is shocked when he first sees the lamb.

The idealistic couple of Maria and Ingvar, played superbly Noomi Rapace and Hilmir Snær Guðnason have had tragedy in their past life that is slowly revealed over the course of the movie and to its credit, Lamb never goes for the easy answers. It’s always pressing, keeping you guessing – and doesn’t take the route that you’d expect it to take. The storyline never goes for the predictable melodrama trappings that it sets up when Petur arrives on the scene, but never loses its sense of foreboding and impending doom.

That’s always there – and the fact that the film is set in a land of constant daylight always makes the atmosphere unique. Never once does the sun set – a rare breath of fresh air from modern horror where sometimes daylight can be salvation – but not so here. Its slower burn approach will mean that it may leave some people disappointed, but the atmosphere and sense of isolation echoes Robert Eggers’ The Witch, drenched with the spirit of the terrific 2018 film Border, by Ali Abbasi that had a strong magical realist bent. But there’s something a bit different to Lamb from all of the genre’s predecessors – wholly unique and isolated. Those expecting something similar to other genre efforts like Midsommar and In the Earth will find no such comparisons here.

The humour is sparsely deployed but to great effect and often where you’d least expect. In one of the best scenes in the movie - Björn Hlynur Haraldsson’s reaction to seeing the lamb in person is iconic and it creates one of the most uncomfortably awkward dinner scenes between the four in the house of the year. The craft and character thought put into these dynamics works wonders – and indeed, Pétur is one of the most well-written characters in the whole thing – his relationship with Ada, the lamb itself – represents the movie’s biggest character growth. Ada herself is a warm delight too – the sheer effort put into the design of the creature and even the emotion in the eyes alone is evident – it wouldn’t work quite as well without its key centrepiece, as great as Rapace and Guðnason are.

If there is one thing that lets Lamb down is the fact that there needed to be a little bit more tension, much of the heavy lifting here is done by the sense of atmosphere and location, as there are multiple parts where the storyline almost feels barely thin to match its incredible premise and even the 106 minutes do feel a little too long at times. But whilst the first chapter is a rough start with signs of early promise, the payoff is there – and when it comes, it hits you like a ton of bricks – completely unforgettable and truly audacious in its effort to commit – Valdimar Jóhannsson's direction is stellar. To call Lamb a true horror would almost be an inaccurate description – it’s never fully scary – but that was never the intention. The sense of danger and dread is always there – be it in the lake, or in the barn – or the cottage itself. These characters are never truly safe - only living in a facade.

There are few things that can be as beautifully created whilst at the same time creating a never-ending source of unease like watching the fog roll in from the mountains in a desolate, abandoned location and the atmosphere created in Lamb cannot be praised enough. It’s a film daring you to go in as cold as possible – there were audible gasps of “what?” in my theatre when the film pulled back the layers on its plot, and audible laughs at the more humorous moments. Leave all preconceptions at the door, and you’ll have a great time – best watched on the biggest screen possible where safe to do so, of course.

Lamb is currently playing in cinemas and will be available in the UK on Mubi in the new year.

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