Icelandic director Valdimar Jóhannsson makes a coolly outrageous feature debut with this jawdropping horror-comedy of loneliness, co-written by Jóhannsson with the lyricist and Björk collaborator Sigurjón Birgir Sigurðsson, or Sjón. It is performed with unflinching commitment by its executive producer-star Noomi Rapace, who is first among equals in a great cast of humans, animals and various prosthetic and digital creature effects.
Maria (Rapace) and Ingvar (Hilmir Snaer Guðnason) are an unhappy couple with a remote farm in Iceland: it gradually becomes clear they have lost their only child. The drama begins with a strange spirit-visitation in the barn that scares the animals: a ewe becomes pregnant with a bizarre animal-human hybrid and poor, stricken Maria (her name’s importance is left for us to digest) conceives a passionate attachment to this precious being, naming it Ada after her dead human daughter.
As this sweet woolly little thing gets bigger and dressed up in the children’s clothes that this couple appear to have bought in advance for their lost human child, their situation as Iceland’s Unholy Family becomes ever more macabre, and even more so considering the complete calm and naturalness of their behaviour. It comes to a crisis of sorts when Ingvar’s dodgy brother Pétur (a failed pop star with some shady friends) shows up needing a place to stay, and the couple’s new houseguest is extremely freaked out by his hosts’ spawn of unnature. Intending some tough love, Pétur takes a rifle and leads trusting Ada by the hand out into the hills. But the ovine side of Ada’s family might have something to say about all this.
We have to wait to get a good look at Ada and confront the full, horrible truth about what she represents, but Jóhannsson cleverly converts our horror into a stupefied comic bewilderment from the outset. We are not supposed to be scared. What is required of us is compassion and respect for Maria’s strange dignity and strength. It’s a great performance from Rapace.