Swan, The (Iceland, 2017)

August 17, 2018
A movie review by James Berardinelli
Swan, The Poster

Aspects of The Swan beguile and engage while others verge on the pretentious (like quoting Tarkovsky). As a slice-of-life/coming-of-age tale, The Swan hits many of the right notes but as an attempt to be something more, it paradoxically becomes less. Based on a 1991 novel by Icelandic author Guobergur Bergsson, the movie strives to have viewers see through the eyes of its 9-year old protagonist, Sol (Grima Valsdottir), but its ability to replicate the perspective of the book is hamstrung by cinematic constraints.  As a result, although The Swan can boast impressive visuals, it’s less sure when charting Sol’s emotional journey. Many of the beats are overly familiar; the movie doesn’t add much to other, similar stories of girls recognizing how messy and duplicitous the world of adults can be.

One problem lies in the frequent voiceovers that fall into one of two categories: narration of Sol’s stories (which tend to be dark) and passages from the diaries of the farmhand Jon (Thor Kristjansson), who develops an inappropriate fascination with the child. These monologues are wordy and arty. They distract from the beauty of the scenery and hammer home themes that would have felt more organic had they been allowed to develop without the unnecessary italicization of words. Although the movie doesn’t lack for quiet moments, it sometimes seems afraid to go too long without someone speaking.

Sol is a watcher and storyteller and her summer on a relative’s farm gives her plenty to observe. Visiting the land owned by her mother’s uncle (Ingvar Eggert Sigurdsson) and aunt (Katla M. Porgeirsdottir) isn’t the perfect way to spend the season but, as the result of some vaguely hinted-at infraction involving a theft, she’s there to learn lessons about the value of hard work. In a remote place remarkable for its untamed beauty, “work” is almost all there is. Just as Sol is settling in, her new routine is disturbed first by the arrival of a regular seasonal farmhand, Jon, and then by the return from university of Asta (Puridur Blaer Johannsdottir), the adult daughter whose room dominates the second story of the house.

Sol gravitates toward Jon, whose kindness is mixed with a kind of creepiness where she is concerned. Despite being in his twenties, he thinks nothing of kissing Sol on the lips (and explains it by saying that when she’s older and trapped in a loveless marriage, the memory of that kiss will keep her warm). He has the soul of a poet and, like many poets, invites tragedy. He is having an affair with Asta (resulting in an unplanned pregnancy) and, when Sol finds out, feelings of betrayal percolate. She also bonds with the animals in her care, especially a calf whose birth she witnesses, and is devasted when the moment comes when it’s time to have veal for dinner. Jon’s complicity in the creature’s demise doesn’t help clarify her muddied feelings about him.

Although the screenplay occasionally falters as a result of the predictable melodrama, The Swan is elevated by Martin Neumeyer’s cinematography (there are times when I wished this was a travelogue) and Grima Valsdottir’s committed performance. The actress conveys the conflicted attitudes of a pre-teen struggling with her first crush and captures the watchful, analytical approach of an outsider when observing a dysfunctional family. Her best scene occurs when she’s saying goodbye to the calf – something she does with the benediction: “take one last look at the world.” Touching moments like this give director Asa Helga Hjorleifsdottir’s feature a heart but her reliance on a generic coming-of-age approach (with all the associated and expected tropes) keeps The Swan from fully taking flight.

Swan, The (Iceland, 2017)

Run Time: 1:31
U.S. Release Date: 2018-08-10
MPAA Rating: "NR" (Animal Slaughter, Sexual Content, Brief Nudity)
Genre: Drama
Subtitles: In Icelandic with English subtitles
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1