The first five minutes of Hlynur Palmason’s A White, White Day (Hvítur, hvítur dagur) introduce a trio that will become familiar as the film winds its way into the depths of grief and anger. Thick, smothering clouds rolling from the mountains onto the roads. A waterside house withstanding the rigours of the climate in the shadow of the mountains, abandoned and then returning to life as it starts to be renovated. And silence. Lots of silence.
In fact, there’s no dialogue in those opening minutes and the first words we hear are spoken in total darkness. Renovating the house is Ingimundur (Ingvar Eggert Sigurosson), a cop whose wife has died two years earlier in a car accident on a foggy mountain road. As he works on the house, which is intended for his daughter and her family, he’s helped by his bright granddaughter Salka (Ida Mekkin Hlynsdottir) and the combination of the two give him purpose, helping him cope with his loss. Until, going through some of his wife’s possessions, he discovers what he’s convinced is evidence of her having an affair. His memories and his life are shattered.
What is essentially a story about the profound grief is frequently shot from a distance, looking in on the action through windows or from a distance, making us long to be on the other side of those barriers, getting closer to the characters expressions. But Palmason is giving us just enough to understand what’s happening, nor more and no less, so when we are nearer to Ingimundur and those around him, it has even more impact and is often explosive. And much of this is down to Sigurosson’s performance as the tortured cop. As he sees what he believes is a crime formulating in front of him, and pinpoints a suspect, he also sees his former life disintegrating into dust: she wasn’t the woman he thought she was and what he accepted as the norm turns out to be unusual among his friends. For somebody who’s experienced broken families as part of his job, he’s unexpectedly ill-equipped when the same happens to him. It’s raw, powerful stuff and, in the final scenes, heart-stoppingly moving.
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That stripped back style and sense of distance is put to one side, however, in the film’s central sequence. Another one without dialogue, taking us back to the scene of that opening car accident and where Ingimundur has a near miss of his own. When his vehicle hits a rock on the road, he throws the obstacle off the edge, re-living the moment that changed his life. Not that we see his face: instead the camera follows the rock as it plummets downwards, gathering speed with nothing to stand in its way and clashing with the misty stillness of the cinematography and the landscape.
Iceland’s entry in this year’s Oscar race is gritty, dour and unexpectedly magnetic, a portrait of a howl of impotent rage. Turning that howl into an actual scene in the film is its only misstep, one that we don’t actually need and which comes close to cliché. That aside, this is a tense exploration of grief and it’s beautifully told.
Drama, Thriller | Iceland, 2019 |15 | Blu-Ray, DVD | Subtitles | 5th October 2020 (UK) |Peccadillo Pictures | Dir. Hlynur Palmason | Ingvar Eggert Sigurosson, Ida Mekkin Hlynsdottir, Hilmir Snaer Guonason