Almanac (World) Cinema: The Feature Films of Iceland

Icelandic clapperboard. (Source: Wikimedia Commons.)

 

 

(Northern) Lights, Camera, Action! – The Feature Films of Iceland

 

Per capita, Iceland is certainly one of the most productive filmmaking countries in the world. With a total population of approximately 360 000, its feature film output in recent decades is breathtaking. The online Icelandic Film Database, in its Icelandic feature films category, lists more than 230 features from 1980 to the present time. (Some of these are co-productions involving other countries, it must be noted.)

 

More important than mere numbers, though, is that the films produced are so often of good – or better than good – quality.

 

One of the most wonderful aspects of Icelandic Cinema is that the country itself is typically a key player, via striking landscapes, seascapes and skyscapes. On many occasions, these visuals may not be front and centre, but instead are subtly but tellingly present, for example, seen through the windows of apartments, houses and public buildings. However the case, the country is almost always there in Icelandic cinema. A particularly memorable example is Solveig Anspach’s Stormy Weather (Stormviðri)* (2004) in which the freezing climate feels as if it penetrates into every corner of the film, so to speak, and is at times almost overwhelming.

 

One of the central issues explored in the films of Iceland is the city/country divide, played out in relation to the differences shown between capital city Reykjavik in the south and the smaller rural places to its north. “Don’t worry about him. He’s from Reykjavik,” (or words to the effect) says one child to another in The Sacred Mound (Hin helgu vé) (1991), as if to explain the apparently odd behaviour of a cousin who has come from the city to stay in her rural home.

 

Another important issue in Icelandic film is the role of society’s institutions, such as those connected to aged care, mental illness, education and local government. A classic example in the context of mental illness is Angels of the Universe (Englar alheimsins) (2001). In terms of education, Stormland (Rokland) (2011) is a fine piece, while Children of Nature (Börn náttúrunnar) (1991) is commendable in its exploration of aged care. Related to local government, the incisive and amusing Polite People (Kurteist folk) (2011) instantly springs to mind.

 

Central to the best Icelandic filmmaking is a poetic quality, inextricably linked to the culture’s wild, untamable Viking heart – one thinks of such films as Cold Light (Kaldaljós) (2004) in this context. Another key aspect is an earthy naturalness and unpretentiousness; here, Land and Sons (Land og synir) (1980) is an excellent example. Iceland film also, sometimes, possesses its own particular magic realism; here, the eccentric and memorable Under the Glacier (Kristnihald undir jökli) (1989) immediately springs to mind.

 

Then there’s the wonderful Icelandic features concerning crime, such as Jar City (Mýrin) (2006) and Black’s Game (Svartur á leik) (2011), and those focused on traditional material, such as Soley (Sóley)(1982) and the various Viking films, comedies such as Albatross (2015), family films such as Regina (2001) … one could go on and on.

 

Icelandic film is indeed a treasure chest. It’s time for those cinema lovers who haven’t done so to unlock it and take a good look at the wonders inside …

 

* Note: in this introduction, the English title of the film precedes the Icelandic title, which is sometimes not a literal translation but something different.

 

 

An Icelandic Dozen – Twelve Top Icelandic Feature Films

 

Land and Sons, 1980. (Land og synir) (Source: IMDb.)

 

Land and Sons (Land og synir) (1980)

(Colour. 91 minutes.)

 

In rural northern Iceland in the 1930s, a farming father and son find it hard to make ends meet. When the father dies, the young man has a decision to make: to keep the farm, or move away and embark upon a new life in the city.

 

Sincere, well made and acted drama. This is an admirably clear and unpretentious depiction of rural life in a past era.

 

Screenplay: Ágúst Guðmundsson Directed by: Ágúst Guðmundsson

Main Cast: Guðný Ragnarsdóttir, Jón Sigurbjörnsson, Sigurður Sigurjónsson, Jónas Tryggvason

 

 

Under the Glacier (Kristnihald undir jökli) (1989)

(Colour. 91 minutes.)

 

The Bishop of Iceland sends an emissary from Reykjavik to the remote Snaefell’s Glacier region of the country to investigate the activities of its pastor and his odd parish.

 

Comedy-drama memorable for its originality and unusual qualities, particularly regarding its magical-realist story. Of its kind, very well done in all major respects. And there is certainly something that lives in one’s memory about the wonderful, typically Icelandic strangeness of the world this film depicts.

 

Screenplay: Gerald Wilson Directed by: Guðný Halldórsdóttir

Main Cast: Baldvin Halldórsson, Margrét Helga Jóhannsdóttir, Sigurður Sigurjónsson

 

 

Northern Tales (Ævintýri á Norðurslóðum) (1992)

(Colour. 90 minutes.)

 

The film is made up of three tales, set in Greenland, the Faroe Islands and Iceland respectively, where the main characters are children and the setting is decidedly non-urban.

 

The three stories are told in a clear, wonderfully unpretentious manner, with a fittingly raw and elemental look and feel. Life, landscape and a touch of the magical combine to produce something quite memorable.

 

Screenplay: Guðný Halldórsdóttir, Jens Brönden, Katrín Óttarsdóttir Directed by: Kristín Pálsdóttir, Katrín Óttarsdóttir, Maariu Olsen
Main Cast: Edda Heiðrún Backman, Bessi Bjarnason, Arnar Jónsson

 

 

Cold Fever, 1995. (Á köldum klaka) (Source: Wikipedia.)

 

 

Cold Fever (Á köldum klaka) ((1995)

(Colour. 83 minutes.)

 

A young Japanese businessman travels to Iceland to perform a traditional religious ceremony at the remote location where his parents were killed in a car accident. He has considerable difficulties in getting there, and along the way must deal with a variety of eccentric characters.

 

Interesting, poetic and well-made comedy-drama, unusual in part for its combination of Japanese and Icelandic elements, though remaining very much an Icelandic film at heart with its stunningly pristine Icelandic landscapes and cultural emphasis. One of the best Icelandic films ever made. Memorable.

 

Screenplay: Jim Stark, Friðrik Þór Friðriksson Directed by: Friðrik Þór Friðriksson
Main Cast: Gísli Halldórsson, Masatoshi Nagase, Lili Taylor, Fisher Stevens, Laura Hughes

 

 

101 Reykjavik (2000)

(Colour. 92 minutes.)

 

Thirty-year-old unemployed Hlynur, directionless and still living at home, has an involvement with his mother’s female partner – but personal relationships are not the only life issue he now has to confront.

 

Comedy-drama. As any Icelander would know, the title comes from the name of an old part of the city. Filmed with verve, quirky and sexy, with a wonderful ending.

 

Screenplay: Baltasar Kormákur Directed by: Baltasar Kormákur
Main Cast: Hilmir Snær Guðnason, Victoria Abril, Hanna María Karlsdóttir

 

 

Angels of the Universe (Englar alheimsins) (2001)

(Colour. 97 minutes.)

 

The life of Paul, a schizophrenic …

 

A strong candidate for the best Icelandic film ever. Its exploration of mental illness and the Icelandic institutions which deal with such illness is highly thoughtful, sensitive and directed with considerable style by Fridrik Thor Fridriksson. The movie contains many memorable characters and scenes, such as one involving psychiatric patients treating themselves to a meal in a high-class restaurant. Put simply, this is a film directed by a top-class filmmaker at the height of his powers.

 

Screenplay: Einar Már Guðmundsson Directed by: Friðrik Þór Friðriksson
Main Cast: Ingvar E. Sigurðsson, Baltasar Kormákur, Björn Jörundur Friðbjörnsson, Hilmir Snær Guðnason

 

 

Stormy Weather (Stormviðri) (2003)

(Colour. 93 minutes.)

 

A psychiatrist, Cora, develops a close relationship with an enigmatic, uncommunicative patient, who is given to sudden and violent outbursts. The patient is returned to her home on an isolated Icelandic island, and Cora follows her there.

 

Memorable drama. The vivid, elemental setting of the island where the story mainly unfolds contributes greatly to the film’s effectiveness. This is one of those features in which Iceland herself plays a strikingly effective role.

 

Screenplay: Sólveig Anspach Directed by: Sólveig Anspach
Main Cast: Elodie Bouchez, Didda Jónsdóttir, Baltasar Kormákur, Ingvar E. Sigurðsson, Christophe Sermet

 

 

Cold Light, 2004. (Kaldaljós) (Source: Wikipedia.)

 

 

Cold Light (Kaldaljós) (2004)

(Colour. 96 minutes.)

 

A portrait of an Icelandic artist as boy and man.

 

Well-acted and shot Kunstlerroman, involving occasional touches of the supernatural, which of course is not unusual in Icelandic storytelling. Again, in such storytelling, the country’s splendid natural world plays a central role. This is another glimpse into Iceland’s wild heart. In so many ways, this is a quintessential Icelandic film. Indeed, Ingvar E. Sigurðsson’s intense stare on its cinema poster is one of Icelandic cinema’s most arresting and memorable images.

 

Screenplay: Hilmar Oddsson, Freyr Þormóðsson Directed by: Hilmar Oddsson
Main Cast: Ingvar E. Sigurðsson, Áslákur Ingvarsson

 

 

Jar City (Mýrin) (2006)

(Colour. 93 minutes.)

 

Police investigate a gory murder …

 

Powerful, grittily realist crime story. An inventive screenplay, clever direction and strong performances combine to result in one of the best Icelandic feature films ever. In places, the film can be described as gloriously seedy … for example, in one scene, a retired crooked cop is mowing tufts of weeds in his desert-like front yard – a barren place where nothing will grow, as if in response to his personal corruption.

 

Screenplay: Baltasar Kormákur Directed by: Baltasar Kormákur
Main Cast: Ingvar E. Sigurðsson, Björn Hlynur Haraldsson, Ágústa Eva Erlendsdóttir

 

 

Bjarnfredarson (2009)

(Colour. 105 minutes.)

 

The life of Georg Bjarnfredarson, an eccentric Icelandic Marxist brought up by an eccentric Icelandic Marxist mother …

 

A wonderful left-of-centre mix of a variety of elements – there’s comedy, drama, absurdism, political satire and biography, and the list could go on. The film has a distinct stamp of originality, and the writing, acting and direction are of excellent quality. Jon Gnarr is a standout as the title character.

 

Screenplay: Jóhann Ævar Grímsson, Jón Gnarr, Jörundur Ragnarsson, Pétur Jóhann Sigfússon, Ragnar Bragason Directed by: Ragnar Bragason
Main Cast: Jón Gnarr, Jörundur Ragnarsson, Pétur Jóhann Sigfússon

 

 

Volcano, 2011. (Eldfjall) (Source: Wikipedia.)

 

 

Volcano (Eldfjall) (2011)

(Colour. 95 minutes.)

 

A man retires from his long-term job as a school janitor. But this is not so much an end for him, more a highly problematic beginning to a new stage of his life.

 

Powerful, grittily realistic drama, possessing a stark, raw quality which makes it stay in the memory long after the final credits have rolled.

 

Screenplay: Rúnar Rúnarsson Directed by: Rúnar Rúnarsson
Main Cast: Theódór Júlíusson, Margrét Helga Jóhannsdóttir

 

 

Under the Tree (Undir trénu) (2017)

(Colour. 89 minutes.)

 

Two suburban couples live side by side. A dispute arises between about a front yard tree. This dispute, however, is soon overshadowed (so to speak!) by other events in their lives.

 

Comedy-drama, with striking moments, that becomes more absurdist as it goes along. Stylishly done in all major respects – writing, direction, acting and cinematography.

 

Screenplay: Huldar Breiðfjörð, Hafsteinn Gunnar Sigurðsson Directed by: Hafsteinn Gunnar Sigurðsson
Main Cast: Sigurður Sigurjónsson, Edda Björgvinsdóttir, Þorsteinn Bachmann, Selma BjörnsdóttirSteinþór Hróar Steinþórsson

 

 

Under the Tree, 2017. (Undir trénu) (Source: Wikipedia.)

 

 

Main Reference

(only for cast and production details – all plot summaries and critiques are mine)

Icelandic Film Database (online)

 

 

 

For more poetry or prose from Kevin, click here

 

 

 

 

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About

Kevin Densley is a poet and writer-in-general. His fourth book-length poetry collection, Sacredly Profane, was published in late 2020 by Ginninderra Press. He is also the co-author of ten play collections for young people, as well as a multi Green Room Award nominated play, Last Chance Gas, which was published by Currency Press. Other writing includes screenplays for educational films.

Comments

  1. John Butler says

    Kevin, I can remember being impressed when I saw Jar City at the Melbourne Film Festival, back in the day.

    You are right about the landscape itself being a key player – it’s so inherently dramatic.

    Thanks for this. Some of these have definitely piqued my interest.

  2. Kevin Densley says

    Cheers, John. Thank you for the comments.

    Glad some of the films have piqued your interest. There’s certainly a wonderful range to choose from.

  3. Mark 'Swish' Schwerdt says

    Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga

  4. John Butler says

    Swish, were you one of the elves?

  5. Kevin Densley says

    I’ll check out the movie, Swish – I note that it has had mixed reviews so far, but one should always make up one’s own mind.

    Iceland has made some of its own music/comedy films, including Ahead of Time (Í takt við tímann) (2004), which is about a band which makes a comeback after a long period off the scene – parts of this oddball film are side-splittingly funny. It is a sequel to another Icelandic film named On Top (Með allt á hreinu), made 22 years earlier.

  6. Seen 2 Icelandic films in the last year. “Woman at War” was an environmental fable that was funny, warm & engaging. “White, White Day” was a grim dirge without plot or character development.
    As you say the stark landscape featured in both movies but WWD showed only the brutal winter.

  7. Kevin Densley says

    Thanks for your input, Peter.

    You’re very contemporary in terms of your Icelandic film viewing!

  8. Mark Poustie says

    Kevin, good article, certainly raised my interest in Icelandic cinema. Any tips as to where we might be able to access these movies. We tried to find some last night ( Angels of the Universe, Jar City, Cold Fever, Under the Glacier) on Netflix and Amazon Prime but no luck.

  9. Kevin Densley says

    Thank you, Mark, for your comments. Often Google is a good place to start looking for Icelandic films, beginning with some general searching, followed by more specific title searching. The Icelandic Film Database is a good general online resource for information about Icelandic films of all kinds (including docos), while pay per view sites such as Icelandic Films Online are worth looking at. I sometimes buy Icelandic feature film DVDs, and these are available at various online venues, which I generally find by Googling. Also, the big Hi-Fi and DVD franchises which have stores both physical and online often stock a few of the more recent and better known Icelandic films. Finally, rarely, there’s the odd Icelandic feature that crops on the free-to-air SBS Movies TV channel.

    There’s some leads, anyway!

  10. Well, Kevin, what about the 2015 beauty Rams. We saw it on one of our regular trips to Carlton’s Cinema Nova.

    It’s about two sheep farming brothers (Theodor Juliusson and Sigurdur Sigurjonsson) from the north of Iceland who haven’t spoken to each other for 40 years. They live on adjacent farms and use a smart border collie to carry messages from one household to the other. But only when absolutely essential.

    They compete against each other for the Top Ram prize at their local agricultural show and the losing brother sneakily examines his brother’s winner in the dead of night.

    He discovers the top ram has scrapie, a toxic condition allied to Mad Cow Disease. When the district’s senior vet. rules that every sheep, not just the rams, in the area must be slaughtered finally the brothers come together to try and thwart the regional edict.

    Rams rated in my Top Ten films for 2015. It’s a ripper movie.

  11. Kevin Densley says

    Hi Edmund!

    Yes, I’ve seen Rams (Hrútar) and it’s a good one, I agree.

    And isn’t rural Iceland such a raw and elemental place? – vividly depicted in films such as this one.

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