wed 23/09/2020

Heartstone review - huge visuals, close-up performances | reviews, news & interviews

Heartstone review - huge visuals, close-up performances

Heartstone review - huge visuals, close-up performances

Sensitive coming-of-age, coming out story set in spectacular Icelandic landscapes

Icelandic writer-director Gudmundur Arnar Gudmundsson has made an impressive feature debut with this story of crossing the threshold from childhood to young adult experience. Heartstone acutely and empathetically catches the path from innocence to experience of its two 14-year-old protagonists, Thor (Baldur Einarsson) and Kristján (Blær Hinriksson), in which the film’s twin themes, coming of age and coming out, become uneasily intertwined.

Gudmundsson opens his story at a leisurely pace – and, at a few minutes over the two-hour mark, there’s no calling its rhythm hurried – as we discover the world in which the two teenagers live. It’s the summer holidays, and they’re loping around with friends, fishing from the harbour side of the remote village that is home. When a shoal of fish swims by unexpectedly, the kids are soon struggling to pull them out of the water fast enough, before casually bashing them to death on the concrete. It’s an indicator that nature here is coloured by tooth and claw (an allusion referenced literally in one early visual), without overmuch room for sentiment. Such a mood will colour the human development that follows, too.HeartstoneBut this is also nature, in the sheer physical sense, at its most impressive (pictured above). The craggy coast around the cluster of houses that makes up the isolated village rises up towards spectacular mountains, which somehow dwarf any human activity with their scale. In summer, as the light stretches around the clock, the beauty is awesome, memorably captured in Norwegian cinematographer Sturla Brandth Grøvlen’s widescreen vistas. But we sense that when winter comes – Heartstone closes as the first dusting of snow falls – the cold isolation of the place will be as complete as the luminous airiness with which it seasonally alternates.

Coming-of-age stories like this, especially from Nordic and Scandinavian climes, are almost a trope of cinema, often defined by the gentleness of their revelations, the sometimes quirky benignity of their settings. Gudmundsson consciously avoids any such tenderness, with nature’s cruelties mirrored in the immediate human environment, like how the village’s older teenagers tease the younger generation. There’s a similarly sharp atmosphere at home, with existence for the sensitive Kristján dominated by a hard-drinking father, and family life for Thor – the nice irony of his name is emphasised by the fact that, though he’s determined and tough, he’s still a minnow in size – coloured by two elder sisters who are as unforgiving with him as they are with their single mother (Nína Dögg Filippusdóttir, a lovely performance).

HeartstoneThe father has gone off with a younger woman, and any sympathy for their mum's tentative attempts to find someone to date in this backwater is notably lacking. We see what it involves for her when the adults get together for the village-hall dance – a thrash, if ever there was one – and her attention falls on the outsider Sven (Søren Malling, a visitor in every sense: he’s Torben, from Borgen). Nevertheless there’s a sense of tough-love affection in this family unit that is finally reassuring, as well as an element of comedy to the sisters, Hafdis (Ran Ragnarsdottir) particularly; she writes poetry of Plath-like intensity that she reads out at meals.

Contrasting yet complementary female company comes with Beta (Dilja Valsdotttir) and Hanna (Katla Njalsdottir, pictured together above), with whom the boys tentatively explore the first hints of sexual consciousness at furtive sleepovers, which come with games of Truth or Dare, the forfeits precipitating different kinds of intimacy. Gradually the unsuspecting best-friend closeness between Thor and Kristján becomes something more complicated, though the scenes of revelation are laced with a lightness that allows for it all to be treated as game-playing. The ramifications become clearer in an episode in which the four of them go camping on their own in the mountains, where the landscape itself seems to pull a response from Kristján that he somehow can’t resist.

Gudmundsson treats the repercussions of his story with understated sensitivity: Heartstone may have won the “Queer Lion” at last year’s Venice film festival, but the sexuality here is one of exploration rather than action (Céline Sciamma’s Tomboy is one other such film that comes to mind). In all such tales of the growing self-awareness of youth, the quality of the playing from the young cast is crucial, and Gudmundsson has drawn hugely sensitive performances from his two leads. The landscapes that surround them may be monumental and memorable, but the sincerity and naturalness of these two performances is almost microscopically exact.  

Overleaf: watch the trailer for Heartstone


Editor Rating: 
Average: 4 (1 vote)

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