LFF 2019 Day Ten: The Juniper Tree (1990) and Clemency (2019)

My two films for the third-to-last day of the London Film Festival were two dramas touching on murder, both made by American directors, although quite different in many other ways. After all, one is a Mediæval-set Icelandic folk tale based on a Brothers Grimm fairytale (i.e. the proper weird old-world stuff), and the other is set at a Death Row facility in the States, but in both settings the characters follow their own twisted logic to its murderous conclusions.


The Juniper Tree (1990) [Iceland, black-and-white]

A strange, appealing folk tale about witchcraft in old Iceland, perhaps the Middle Ages, or perhaps more recently (because I get the sense Iceland didn’t exactly throw itself into modernity, but then maybe I’m just remembering some Halldór Laxness novels). Needless to say with its stark black-and-white cinematography and those Icelandic landscapes, it has a fantastic sense of place, of its almost endless extent, long horizons against which the characters seem so small and frail. And of course there’s Ms Guðmundsdóttir in her first film role, pretty successfully playing a young girl (although she was in her early-20s when it was filmed), her voice barely rising above the sing-songy whisper so familiar from her music. She plays Margit, whose mother has been killed for witchcraft and who with her older sister (Bryndis Petra Bragadóttir) flees her home. The sister entices a man with her powers, and they live together until his young son calls her out, at which point, well, things develop. It’s all in English, which makes it feel oddly stilted but also pushes it further into a sense of strangeness that sort of works for the material, and it maintains its oddly fascinating intensity throughout.

The Juniper Tree film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Nietzchka Keene (based on the fairy tale Von dem Machandelboom by the Brothers Grimm); Cinematographer Randy Sellars; Starring Björk [as “Björk Guðmundsdóttir”], Bryndis Petra Bragadóttir; Length 78 minutes.
Seen at BFI Southbank (NFT3), London, Friday 11 October 2019.


Clemency (2019) [USA]

So it turns out that presiding over the execution of inmates at a prison is not an easy job, but tracking just how it affects one woman (Alfre Woodard as the warden Bernadine) is what the film does very effectively, no little thanks to Woodard’s steely performance. Naturally there is a sombre feeling that is woven deeply into the fabric of the film, with lots of long quiet scenes of people falling apart a little before the camera, and the slow sapping of Bernadine’s energy over the course of the film — not to mention that of death row inmate Anthony (Aldis Hodge) — is what the actors manage to convey so well. There’s not a great deal of grandstanding, and this is filmmaking closer in style to, say, Ava DuVernay’s early features (the ones I like the most of hers) or other sad, serious dramas about people living difficult lives but trying to maintain their dignity all the same.

Clemency film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Chinonye Chukwu; Cinematographer Eric Branco; Starring Alfre Woodard, Aldis Hodge, Wendell Pierce; Length 113 minutes.
Seen at ICA, London, Friday 11 October 2019.

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