Every so often there’s a news story in which neighbours quarrel over rampaging leylandii. The police are summoned, the case reaches the court, and whole lives are consumed by inextinguishable hatred. These nuclear tiffs are a Middle England staple. A boundary dispute is a border dispute writ small. Other European nations have watched their negotiable frontiers move around like a boundary rope on a cricket pitch. Surrounded by sea, we don’t have that in our DNA. And maybe Icelanders don’t either.
Under the Tree is a social comedy from Iceland in which the eponymous tree sits in the more southerly of two abutting gardens. The shade it casts thwarts the sun worship of Eybjorg (Selma Bjornsdottir). Hang on, sunbathing in Iceland? But let that pass: this is not a finicky film hung up on plausibility. Eybjorg is a blonde, Lycra-clad exercise freak and the second wife of Konrad (Thorsteinn Bachmann). She thus excites the deep suspicions of Inga (Edda Bjorgvinsdottir), her much older neighbour who tells her husband Baldvin (Sigurthur Sigurjonsson) that ‘that cycling bitch can easily move out of the shade’. Baldvin, a beta male, slopes off to choir practice at the first sign of aggro. Inga opts for escalation, throwing the bagged-up dog shit found in her garden back at Eybjorg. Soon Baldvin finds his tyres slashed. The tree surgeon, booked by Baldvin to appease the neighbours, is sent away again. After Konrad brings home a power saw, CCTV is installed to provide 24/7 surveillance for the endangered tree.
Inga would seem to be a common-or-garden harpy, but her mind has been turned by unresolved grief for a son who has long since disappeared, and probably killed himself. Her less-favoured other son Atli (Steinthor Hroar Steinthorsson) has just moved back in, booted out by his wife Agnes (Lara Johanna Jonsdottir), who discovered him masturbating to footage furtively captured while humping his ex-fiancée. Sex is another source of neighbourly rancour. In a meeting of apartment-block tenants, the group berates a loved-up couple for the filthy talk everyone can hear through the bedroom walls. Inga despises Eybjorg for her desire to conceive at 40, which finds Konrad summoned to the marital bed for joyless ovulation-triggered couplings.
Because Atli and Agnes have a young daughter, the plot also contains a more familiar turf war between a couple fighting over custody. But here unreasonable behaviour is policed by social norms and, if necessary, the actual police. Feuding neighbours are in a murkier, less invigilated area, which is how a cat and a dog become innocent pawns in a territorial arms race.
Under the Tree is directed by Hafsteinn Gunnar Sigurthsson from a script co-written with Huldar Breithfjorth. It will doubtless be shown on two-and-a-half screens before hastening to the foreign section of a streaming service, but it merits attention in a week without a standout release (alternatives include Wim Wenders in pursuit of Pope Francis and Jason Statham hunting a monster shark in The Meg). At one point, Baldvin does a double take at the pace of events and asks, ‘Has everyone lost their mind?’ The argument over a tree is nothing that couldn’t be sensibly sorted by arbitration, but this contemporary Icelandic saga fierily imagines what might happen when, with just the right amount of kindling, civilised people lose the plot. There’s a climactic lurch into tooled-up Grand Guignol, when comedy gives way to horror. For any politician spoiling for a fight over Ireland’s soft/hard border, Under the Tree is required viewing.
Subscribe to The Spectator Australia today for a quality of argument not found in any other publication. Subscribe – Try a month free