Juniper Tree, The (1990): Icelandic Nietzchka Keen’s Medieval Fantasy-Fairy Tale, Starring Björk (Sundance Fest; Women Make Film)

Icelandic Nietzchka Keene directed The Juniper Tree, a beautifully mounted black-and-white Medieval fantasy, based on the fairy tale by the Brothers Grimm.

The Juniper Tree
The Juniper Tree.jpg

Re-release poster

Our Grade: B+ (**** out of *****)

The ensemble of this intimate, haunting film, consists of a small cast of five actors: Björk, Bryndis Petra Bragadóttir, Guðrún Gísladóttir, Valdimar Örn Flygenring and Geirlaug Sunna Þormar.

Set in Iceland, The Juniper Tree is a tale of of two sisters, Margit (Björk Guðmundsdóttir) and her elder sibling Katla (Bryndis Petra Bragadóttir), who escape their home after their mother (Guðrún Gísladóttir) is stoned and burned for witchcraft.

In their journey, they find Jóhann (Valdimar Örn Flygenring), a young widower raising a son named Jónas (Geirlaug Sunna Þormar). Katla uses magical powers to seduce Jóhann and they start living together, and Margit and Jónas become friends.

However, Jónas does not accept Katla as his stepmother and tries to convince his father to leave her. Katla’s magic power is too strong and even though he knows he should leave her, he can’t.

Margit’s mother appears in visions and Jónas’ mother appears as a raven to bring him a magical feather.

Made on a small budget in 1986, the The film was shot in black and white to highlight its dramatic content and context of the Middle Ages. Some scenes were filmed at the spectacular Reynisfjara basalt columns and the Seljalandsfoss waterfall on the south coast of Iceland.

Due to financial problems, the film was not released until 1990, when it competed for the Grand Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival.

The film was restored to 4K resolution by the Center for Film & Theatre Research, Wisconsin, and was theatrically released on March 15, 2019. The restored version premiered at the AFI Fest on November 10, 2018 (where I saw if for the first time).

The well produced film benefits considerably from the splendid and touching performance of Björk, who was 21 at the time.

The pace is slow and deliberate, accentuating a film that lingers in memory due to its grim tone and haunting mood, which are perfectly suitable to the texture of a tale, which relies more on powerful imagery than verbal dialogue.

Credits:

Icelandic title Einitréð
Directed, written by Nietzchka Keene
Produced by Patrick Moyroud
Music by Larry Lipkis
Cinematography Randy Sellars
Edited by Nietzchka Keene
Distributed by Rhino Home Video

Release date: April 10, 1990 (Sundance Fest); February 12, 1993 (Iceland)

Running time: 78 minutes

 

Note:

TCM showed this rarely-projected film on September 23, 2020 as part of its series, “Women Make Film.”