10 November 2008

A fatal heritage within

Icelandic director Baltasar Kormákur's breakthrough 2000 movie 101 Reykjavik brought his work to a wider audience outside his homeland and is probably the only Icelandic movie people have heard of, if they know of any. More recently his 2006 movie Mýrin (Jar City), from the novel by crime writer Arnaldur Indriðason, has shown his versatility. Jar City complements the slacker comedy of '101' with a taut, well-observed murder mystery replete with restrained yet accomplished performances by the cast and an impressive plot that spins an effective crime story into an involving and multifaceted drama.

Grizzled police veteran Erlendur, the protagonist of seven other Indriðason crime novels in addition to Mýrin, is played by talented veteran actor Ingvar Eggert Sigurðsson, who will also appear in 'The Letter', Gael García Bernal's chapter of the eight-segment film '8', to be released shortly.

Investigating the seemingly motiveless murder of a lonely middle-aged truck-driver in Reykjavik, Erlendur traces a trail of clues that links the murdered man with long-forgotten family secrets. His quest leads him to seek the assistance of a young scientist, feverishly researching the genetic disorder that killed his young daughter. Another little girl died of the same illness in 1974, but there's only one way to fit the pieces of the puzzle together - a visit to Jar City, the morbid, strip-lit world of pickled organs lying deep within Reykjavik hospital. Erlendur must also contend with a sociopathic imprisoned criminal who knows more than he's letting on, and the ongoing difficulties faced by his wayward daughter, who needs money for an abortion but can't bear to give up her addictions. Dark secrets must be uncovered before the mystery can be solved and a family tragedy put to rest.

Kormákur makes good use of the stark beauty of the Icelandic environment and the haunting tones of the traditional male voice choirs that bookend the opening and closing moments of the film. Aside from the drama there are also welcome glimpses of taciturn humour, particularly concerning Erlendur's likeable yet slightly ineffectual sidekick Sigurður, who coughs, splutters and cavils at Erlendur's constant chain-smoking. And the scene in which the divorcee Erlendur devours a takeaway meal of the Icelandic delicacy Svið (braised sheep's head) savouring the eyeball in particular, is a notable first for onscreen cuisine!

Look for this film to go on to greater success like Erik Skjoldbjærg's 1997 Norwegian thriller Insomnia, which was remade by Hollywood in 2002 (relocated to Alaska) and featured Al Pacino, Robin Williams (successfully playing against type as the villain) and Hilary Swank.

Trailer (Icelandic w/ subtitles, 2:00 mins):

My Iceland trip (July 2007)
Icelandic Film Centre
Visit Iceland
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