It’s been a while since the festival world has seen an Icelandic film that takes place in Reykjavik. The latest wave of great films from the small nation all seems to take place in the valleys, the fjords, the mountainsides. Most of them are named after rock or animal: Of Horses and Men, Rams, Volcano, Virgin Mountain. Gudmundur Arnar Gudmundsson’s debut feature is called Heartstone, and it could just as easily have been named after one of the animals that feature prominently in the film. Probably the strange fish, that the young boys of the little town catches, but then throws out as they aren’t fit to eat. It’s a film about misfits, people who are different, that have to learn how to swim on.
The film follows two teenage boys in a small Icelandic town. Thor lives with his elder sisters and single mother and nurses a crush on Beth. Kristian’s father is a violent, hateful man, who probably wouldn’t be able to handle that his son might be gay. The boys are best friends, but their friendship will change as Thor seeks to spend more time with Beth, and fears that the ‘weird’ behaviour of his friend will hurt his social standing, while Kristian is struggling to figure out his own identity. And both of them have to live in a town that fears the non-conformative, from sexually assertive women to the Danish farmer living on the outskirts of town, who the boys work for.
The film has a lot in common with Sparrows, the Icelandic Golden Seashell winner from last year. Both in its theme of young men feeling boxed in by small societies, and in its use of celluloid imagery, natural lighting, and impressionistic camerawork. But Heartstone is the better film. The imagery is consistently amazing, with warm sunlight streaking the landscape, and wind and rain battering the young people in the empty fields. The stories are more realistic and feel more lived in, the town more fully inhabited, with the hierarchies and gossip circles fully sketched out. The central acting performances from Baldur Einarsson and Blær Hinriksson as Thor and Kristian are both realistic and amazingly touching, and while many Icelandic films have trouble portraying women, the many sisters, mothers, lovers in the story feel like fully realised human beings as well, and not just props for the development of the central males – a problem surprisingly common in films from all over the world. The film might be the best from the recent wave of Icelandic prizewinners, and it’s perhaps the best Scandinavian film from 2016. Less formally audacious than something like Rams or Of Horses and Men, but much more emotionally touching.
It continues to be a bit baffling that Icelandic cinema, which dissects and problematises masculinity to such a large extent, continues to be directed almost exclusively by men. And I’m not entirely sure all of the LGBT community will embrace Heartstone, with its depiction of a gay young man suffering in a judgmental world, a narrative that has been seen many times before. However, the film did win the Queer Lion at Venice, and while Kristian struggles, there’s also a lot of joy in the relationship between the two young men – a scene of them running around with makeup on, for instance, shows a possible life that might just be a few years and a change of scenery away. There’s real hope in the film, real rays of sunlight. It’s humane, it’s engrossing, it’s beautiful.