The Swan


Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

The Swan
"It’s that forceful central performance that really makes The Swan special."

The adult world can be hard to understand when you’re nine. This isn’t an uncommon theme in cinema, but Ása Helga Hjörleifsdótirr’s bold debut feature takes it further. When you’re nine, it can be difficult to understand yourself. Sól (Grima Valsdóttir) doesn’t know why she steals things and causes trouble. She has a concept of right and wrong but her own motives are more obscure – sometime she just follows her instincts and then people are angry. Now her mother’s despair has led to her being sent away. She will spend the summer with her great aunt on a remote farm. Routine is good for children, her great aunt says. Soon she’ll adjust.

The adjustment required is considerable. There is no mobile phone reception here; Sól’s phone is taken away. There are few opportunities for play. Sól isn’t afraid of hard work but it’s difficult for to deal with the more brutal aspects of farm life. She finds solace in the wild hills, in the scrub and the irrigation ditches, telling stories in which dreams and reality blur together, stories that speak to the folk legacy of Iceland. But the reality of the adult lives around her is more complicated than it first appears, and far from routine – especially after her great aunt’s daughter returns from university and she realise that this troubled, aggressive young woman has stolen the heart of the farmhand who is her only friend.

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It’s unlikely that you’ve seen a more resentful looking child than Valsdóttir, but her range becomes apparent as the story develops and Sól experiences complex feelings for the farmhand, also having to come to terms with the fact that adults might not know what they’re doing either. Meanwhile, the young woman tells her of a lake high In the mountains where a swan spirit lures people to their deaths. Sól’s thoughts crystallise around this mythical enemy as she becomes determined to face down the threat, to resist the dependence on other people that has clearly damaged those around her.

It’s that forceful central performance that really makes The Swan special, together with Martin Neumeyer’s atmospheric but never overbearing cinematography, which brings out the light as well as the darkness in the hills. Hjörleifsdótirr handles her cast with assurance to produce a film that feels remarkably solid, a story firmly rooted in the landscape. Not so much a coming of age story as a story about the self-discovery that can happen at any time of life – or never – this is a film whose beauty cloaks real intelligence.

Reviewed on: 26 Feb 2018
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A troublesome girl sent to stay on a farm for the summer comes of age as she gets to know the animals around her and gradually understands the adult world.

Director: Ása Helga Hjörleifsdóttir

Writer: Guðbergur Bergsson, Asa Hjorleifsdottir

Starring: Gríma Valsdóttir, Ingvar E Sigurðsson, Kalta Margrét Þorgeirsdóttir

Year: 2017

Runtime: 91 minutes

Country: Estonia, Germany, Iceland


Glasgow 2018

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