Jar City

Jar City


Reviewed by: Andrew Robertson

Jar City is a uniquely Icelandic murder mystery. It starts with the death of a young girl, Kola, from a rare condition, and as it unfolds before us other lives and deaths are drawn into the tale.

The original title of the film is Mýrin, "marsh", and that sense of the murky, of the semi-solid runs through the film. As Kola lies dying in hospital her father Örn (Atli Rafn Sigurðsson) sings her a lullaby, and as her body is prepared for burial his voice is replaced by a choir. Save for the wind and the occasional quasi-electronic growl, the massed voices are the only score.

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The singers are a policeman's choir, among them Detective Erlundur (Ingvar E Sigurðsson), a stern-faced and weary man. He is the recurring protagonist of Arnaldur Indriðason's novels, and it's upon his novel (also Jar City) that the film is based.

Erlundur is one of a trio of detectives, partnered with Sigurður Óli (Björn Hlynur Haraldsson) who has been 'touched' by American methods, and Elínborg (Ólafía Hrönn Jónsdóttir) who hides a keen mind behind a friendly smile. In the litany of film detectives, Erlundur is no style icon, usually wrapped in a hideous brown cardigan, usually frowning. He is dogged, however, and after he is called to the death of a man, Holberg, he dutifully follows any and every clue until he has the truth.

We are told this is a typically Icelandic murder: "Messy, pointless, and no attempt to hide the evidence." It's true enough, indeed, this is perhaps less a mystery than it is a procedural, but Iceland is so odd that the line between the two is blurry. The country is a small town over a big area, murder is rare, everybody seems to know everyone else, and although the motives are basic the nature of it is at once modern and anachronistic. Those contrasts, that sense of place, make Jar City.

Erlundur travels from the capital to the prison to interview one of Holberg's former companions, Iceland's "most famous lunatic" Elliði. Theódór Júlíusson is excellent in the role, bruising and bullying, a child in a beast of a man. Elliði attempts to needle Erlundur with news of his daughter. As Eva (Ágústa Eva Erlendsdóttir) explains, the crooks seek to get at Erlundur for having such a wayward daughter, as they try to get at her for having such a stalwart policeman for a father. Erlundur's relationship with Eva is well handled - indeed, Erlundur's characterisation as a whole is well done; even small touches, like his relationship with the girl at the drive-through counter have some significance.

The central murder could probably only have happened that way in Iceland, though the characters that shepherd it along, from Eyvindur Erlendsson mumbling turn as the corrupt (and now senile) Sergeant Rúnar to Þór Tulinius' detached pathologist are both fresh and familiar. This is a human tragedy through the lens of Iceland.

The cinematography is startling, beautiful, haunting. Aerial shots of Erlundur's Range Rover on Iceland's handful of roads recall big budget car adverts. The wild variety of lighting conditions give the sense that the film has been shot, guerilla style, in the middle of a commercial campaign. It moves past naturalism into a weird kind of hyper-reality, like lens flare in a videogame. The sparse score, Sigurðsson's detachment as Erlundur, even the way the characters eat, all build the sense of place. The obvious comparison is Chinatown. Why this, why that? It's Iceland, Jake.

Jar City is a classic. The only threat to its uniqueness is that Indriðason has written other Detective Erlundur novels, but on the strength of this outing that's no threat at all, merely an invitation for further adaptations.

Reviewed on: 11 Sep 2008
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A trio of detectives investigate a murder in Iceland.
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Director: Baltasar Kormákur

Writer: Baltasar Kormákur, based on the book by Arnaldur Indriðason.

Starring: Ingvar Eggert Sigurðsson, Ágústa Eva Erlendsdóttir, Björn Hlynur Haraldsson, Ólafía Hrönn Jónsdóttir, Atli Rafn Sigurðsson

Year: 2006

Runtime: 93 minutes

BBFC: 15 - Age Restricted

Country: Iceland, Germany, Denmark


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