There’s an old, fable-like feeling to Lamb (2021) that’s immediately appealing, its animal subject matter, grieving central couple and harsh but beautiful rural setting all aspects that conjure up memories of those moralistic tales we used to hear as children. It’s something that writer-director Valdimar Jóhannsson plays on too, separating his film into chapter headings as if he’s reading it to us from a book. Except this is one story you wouldn’t want to hear just before bedtime, ideas around nature versus nurture and the consequences of human meddling turning this farmyard folk horror into a sinister, nightmarish experience as dark as anything the Brothers Grimm ever wrote.
Even from the opening moments, Jóhannsson builds an intense atmosphere of dread that has us on edge, his expert direction transforming the idyllic countryside into a terrifying place where nature should be feared. Extreme close-ups of sheep and their wide, glassy eyes make it seem as if they’re about to attack at any second, while long shots of snowy landscapes are accompanied by the sound of someone (or something) breathing, Jóhannsson hinting at unspeakable horrors lurking in the wilderness. No wonder María (Noomi Rapace) and Ingvar (Hilmir Snær Guðnason) are unhappy there, the pair barely talking to each other as they forlornly go about their days, trapped in a tedious, claustrophobic existence. So when a new lamb is born and they take it into their home to nurse it back to health, this helpless life offers them both a glimmer of hope, the couple naming the baby ‘Ava’ and even letting it sleep in their bedroom. But with the real mother of the lamb loudly objecting to this arrangement, and María and Ingvar’s behaviour becoming increasingly odd, we start to suspect there’s more to this than a spot of lambsitting.
Jóhannsson and co-writer Sjón unravel their narrative at a steady, unrushed pace, keeping us in horrid suspense as we eagerly wait to discover what’s happening beneath those nursery blankets. Brief glimpses of the lamb and carefully framed shots further add to this feeling of unease, Jóhannsson suggesting something macabre lingering just out of sight, such as during the birth when the camera stays on María and Ingvar’s concerned faces. It’s this slow-burn approach that makes what follows in Lamb all the more effective, several moments coming so shockingly out of the blue that they will haunt you for a long time (one reveal is particularly horrifying). Yet this gradual build-up also allows the bond between the couple and Ava to grow in a way that feels realistic, keeping us on board with the unusual aspects of the tale as María and Ingvar’s initial instinct to protect the baby becomes something else entirely. Jóhannsson and Sjón never tell us the reason María and Ingvar are so dejected when we first meet them (glances of photos in the background and a stored-away crib point to some form of loss), but it’s easy to see why they fall in love with Ava, and why they resort to such extreme measures to hold onto her. Noomi Rapace is particularly brilliant at portraying how fearful María is of losing this new happy life, her wonderful, tender performance undercutting even the most joyful scenes with sadness, Rapace hinting that deep down María knows it can’t last. But she’ll certainly do everything in her power to keep her makeshift family together.
While Lamb’s subtle storytelling is mesmerising in those earlier moments, Jóhannsson surprisingly loses all traces of ambiguity in the latter part of his tale, suddenly revealing more than we’re expecting to see. It’s a decision that sadly makes the second half of the film less compelling, Jóhannsson relying a little too much on computer generated effects to keep our interest – effects that aren’t particularly terrible, but which aren’t very convincing either. This is definitely a case where less would have been more, especially when we’ve already seen how gripping Jóhannsson’s film can be when it sticks to the power of suggestion. The ending also happens too quickly to have real emotional impact, Jóhannsson and Sjón’s script not building up to it in any truly satisfying way. It’s a scene that is certainly shocking and which ties together the themes of the story, yet it feels out of place alongside the slow-burn approach of the rest of the narrative. As such, it concludes with a bit of a lifeless bleat rather than a bang – a huge shame when everything else in the plot is so good.
There’s still a lot to love about the surreal, creepy world of Lamb though. The pace is hypnotic without ever being boring, Jóhannsson’s suspenseful direction pulling us into this atmospheric tale and keeping us on the edge of our seat throughout, while that wonderful cinematography captures the beauty of the setting, yet also the isolation of María and Ingvar’s lives. Filled with moving performances from the cast and several eerie moments that will play on your mind days later, this is an enchanting, folklore-esque drama about parenthood, grief, and the consequences of interfering with nature, as well as a film that marks Jóhannsson as an exciting director to look out for in the future.