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Lamb movie review: Noomi Rapace exudes warmth in waking nightmare of a horror film

Rating: 3 out of 5

Lamb movie review: Noomi Rapace delivers a magnificently warm performance in A24's frigid arthouse horror, out on MUBI.

Noomi Rapace on the poster for Lamb. (Photo: A24)

Lamb is what characters from the latest Scream movie would describe as ‘elevated horror’—a scary movie that is ‘about something’. The self-aware, cine-literate Scream characters would be right, of course, but only partially. Directed by debutant Valdimar Jóhannsson from a script he co-wrote with the Icelandic multi-hyphenate Sjón, Lamb is certainly ‘about something’, but it’s not the sort of folk horror film that fans of, say, Midsommar, would go in expecting. It is, instead, a ‘dark fantasy’–the sort of movie that Guillermo del Toro would’ve made had he been born 20 years later, in a different hemisphere.

Like Ari Aster’s Midsommar (and fellow arthouse horror films such as The VVitch, Hereditary, and Saint Maud) Lamb is also produced by the chic indie outfit A24, which, over the last decade, has built the sort of brand identity that brings to mind the Fox Searchlight days. Telling you that Lamb is an A24 movie does a better job at explaining what you’re in for than any logline I can paraphrase. But I’ll give it a shot, nonetheless.

Set in an isolated farm in rural Iceland—the movie literally has just three speaking parts—Lamb tells the twisted story of Maria and Ingvar, a grieving couple living a quiet life away from civilisation. Played by Noomi Rapace and Hilmir Snær Guðnason, Maria and Ingvar are stunned one day, when a sheep in their stable gives birth to a part-human offspring. They take the human-sheep hybrid as their own, naming it Ada after their deceased daughter.

Maria and Ingvar’s blissful new life is rudely interrupted by Ada’s biological mother, who begins lurking around their house, bleating away for hours as it tries to catch her attention, and Ingvar’s rugged brother, Pétur, who is less a character than a convenient plot mechanic, designed specifically to introduce conflict to the proceedings. He is also the first outsider, so to speak, to catch a glimpse of Ada. But after initially reacting in shock to what Maria and Ingvar are doing, he develops a soft corner for her. There’s a sense that Pétur was somewhat of a black sheep as well, so it makes sense for him, in the fantastical world of the film, to behave in this manner.

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Deliberately paced and as emotionally frigid as the vast landscape against which it is set, Lamb is an unsettling but demanding examination of trauma, loneliness and motherhood, sometimes together. The perpetual daytime setting isn’t as heightened as what we saw in the very sunny Midsommar, but it certainly contributes to the film’s eerie atmosphere, and a sense that what Maria and Ingvar are experiencing is not unlike a waking nightmare. The wide-screen cinematography, on the other hand, emphasises the characters’ emotional and physical isolation.

More adventurous interpretations of the film’s fable-like form could suggest that it is a metaphorical representation of Iceland’s geo-political outsider-status—it is a country that more or less minds its own business, and maintains an arm’s distance from not just the rest of the world, but also other Nordic states. Lamb is many things, but ironically, it’s not what most people would specifically expect it to be.

On the sole occasion that it flirts with the conventional language of horror cinema, it does so not with a roar but a mumble, deliberately underplaying a moment that, in virtually any other scary movie, would have been accompanied by a loud sound effect. You’ll know it when you see it. In fact, such is its dedication to not offering a helping hand to struggling audiences, that it barely even has a musical score, or much dialogue. More often than not, you’re left to find your own way through, as if you’ve actually been stranded at the side of an Icelandic fjord.

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The film’s most prominent emotional anchor—or, a sort of umbilical cord—is Rapace’s magnificent central performance. As the grieving Maria, she is stoic and sad; frenzied and fierce. What he doesn’t convey through traditional techniques such as sound and music, Jóhannsson communicates with the help of Rapace’s face. In a way, it’s a more impressive special effect than whatever they’ve done to create Ada.

Hers is the sort of genre film turn that routinely goes unnoticed by awards groups, and is easily more nuanced than at least two performances currently nominated in the Best Actress category at the Oscars. Lamb is available to watch on MUBI; wouldst thou not like to live deliciously?

Lamb
Director – Valdimar Jóhannsson
Cast – Noomi Rapace, Hilmir Snær Guðnason, Björn Hlynur Haraldsson
Rating – 3/5

First published on: 25-02-2022 at 08:14 IST
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