‘Iceland: Shining Northern Lights’ was one of GFF20’s festival strands this year with 12 titles on offer – an impressive array of films from such a small country. I managed to catch three of them, all good. This second title after Pity the Lovers, was in some ways the most familiar because it stars Ingvar Sigurdsson, the first Icelandic actor to make an impression on me with his lead in Jar City back in 2008. I was delighted to find that he was present for the screening and he proved to be an entertaining guest. In Jar City he played a rather grumpy police officer, a role he repeated (although less grumpy) in the popular TV crime fiction series Trapped (2015-19). He has 81 acting credits, including several Hollywood roles and not all of them police officers, but in A White, White Day he appears as what the synopsis refers to as an ‘off-duty police chief’ in a rural community.
The film opens with a misty wintry scene, a day when it is hard to distinguish between earth and sky. From behind we watch a car career off a remote road, through the safety barrier and crash unseen below. We are then shown a house in a rural location and through a leisurely montage of similar static shots it is renovated/re-built over time and with significant changes to doors, windows etc. and the horses in the fields around it. This turns out to be the home of Ingimundur (Sigurdsson) a widowed police officer spending his time on the house as part of the grieving process for his lost wife. Ingimundur is struggling to come to terms with his loss. He has colleagues, friends and family to support him but he seems closest to Salka, his young grand-daughter, played by the daughter of the film’s writer-director Hlynur Palmason. It is an astonishing performance by the little girl and in the Q&A Ingvar Sigurdsson was full of praise for how she helped him with his role.
This intriguing opening might be the beginning of a crime fiction but in the Press Notes, the director tells us something else:
I’ve never thought about genres, I know very little about them. I don’t think I’m that conscious about where the film is going, but for me A White, White Day was about two kinds of love. Love that you have for your children or grandchildren, which is simple, pure and unconditional and then another kind of love – a love you have for your partner, your lover, wife etc. That is something completely different, it’s more complex, intimate, animalistic and something quite unique that you don’t have with anyone else.
This statement pushes the reader into thinking about the film in a different way. I do feel that having read through the Press Notes and re-run scenes from the film in my mind’s eye, I now read it differently. I seem to have watched several films recently which all seem to be ‘art films’ making use of genre elements and structures and, by doing so, frustrating audiences (see recent posts and comments on The Lighthouse and Little Joe). Like those films, A White, White Day was shown at Cannes in 2019 and will get a UK release from Peccadillo Pictures (date not yet confirmed). I wonder if it will cause the same consternation? At Cannes, Ingvar Sigurdsson won the ‘Rising Star Award’ which is ironic for someone with his great experience and previous acclaim. Around the festival circuit over the last year the actor and the film have been nominated for awards many times, winning on several occasions. The film’s arthouse credentials are clear. It is director Palmason’s second feature after the similarly acclaimed Winter Brothers (2017). Both films feature the cinematography of Maria von Hausswolff from Denmark and editor Julius Krebs Damsbo. The music in the new film is by Edmund Finnis and Palmason’s work with his actors and this trio of creatives has created a film that works primarily as a character study about the grieving policeman.
No spoilers here but I want to point to some of the ways in which camerawork and editing help to create a sense of Ingimundur’s feelings. The camerawork is at moments simply expressionistic as in the montage of static shots of the house and the sense of time passing slowly or the view from the house through a porthole. The mise en scène isolates Ingimundur in several scenes, especially at various social and family gatherings where it often seems that Salka is the only companion he seeks. He has been required (I surmise) to undergo some counselling from a psychologist and these sequences are edited in distinctive ways. When he is talking to the psychologist via a video link and loses control, the camera pulls back to show him attempting to break the connection by attacking the computer and the power and signal sources.
Having said this, it is impossible to not read certain incidents as making references to genre narratives. When a rock has fallen on the road near to where his wife’s car crashed do we wonder if it’s a sign that someone is attacking him? When he rummages through a box of his wife’s photographs and finds one that perhaps shouldn’t be there do we think of a crime fiction/thriller narrative? The whole narrative sometimes feels like a ghost story and the stories Ingimundur tells Salka seem to point to Norse mythology. Having spent a long time trying to write this piece, I feel that the film is much richer than I experienced at the time and I can’t wait to see it again. Do watch out for it – highly recommended!