Cineworld, Edinburgh

Hear that rustling noise?

It’s the sound of many tourists frantically crossing ‘a visit to Iceland’ off their bucket lists. It’s not that the place isn’t geographically stunning. In Lamb, Eli Arenson’s cinematography shows it in all its misty splendour. But in Valdemar Jóhannsson’s debut feature it seems a dark and menacing place, particularly in the remote part of the countryside where a married couple ply a lonely trade as sheep farmers.

It’s lambing season and Maria (Noomi Rapace) and Ingvar (Hilmir Snær Guõnason) are literally working around the clock, assisting pregnant sheep with the messy process of giving birth, something which is shown in considerable detail. And then one particular lamb is born and there is something about this one – something that spurs the couple to take it into their house, to feed it bottled milk and even to give it a name – Ada. It would be criminal to reveal any more than that, but suffice to say that Jóhannsson cunningly holds back on any explanation for quite some time. When the truth is finally revealed, it hits me like a sucker-punch to the gut and I find myself intrigued.

The sheep farmers’ idyll is rudely interrupted by the unexpected arrival of Ingvar’s younger brother, Pétur (Björn Hlynur Haradldsson), a former pop star turned full time wastrel. It’s clear from his first appearance that he and Maria have some history together, which makes things awkward. But what is Pétur going to make of the new addition to the family, particularly when he learns of the lengths that Maria has gone to in order to ensure she has no rivals for Ada’s affection?

Lamb lets the central couple’s backstory emerge at a leisurely pace and, though it skimps on detail, there’s enough for me to fill in the gaps. It’s rather like having just enough pieces of a jigsaw to reveal the outline of something distinctly unsettling.

This is a very unusual film to say the least. It plays rather like a contemporary fairy tale, full of forbidding imagery and, at times, almost unbearable suspense. I’ve never seen anything quite like it before . As the story unfolds, I find myself formulating various possible resolutions, but there’s no way I could guess at the direction in which Jóhannsson and co-writer, Sjón are ultimately heading.

4.5 stars

Philip Caveney

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