A fantastical dreamlike story, Ása Helga Hjörleifsdótirr’s feature film debut The Swan is a beautifully shot coming-of-age story based on the widely praised novel by Guðbergur Bergsson. Not too dissimilar from the dreamy state in Alice in Wonderland, The Swan is a film about how a troubled tween is able to find maturity while working on a farm out in the Icelandic countryside, maturing from Ugly Ducking into beautiful Swan.

The film closely follows Sól, a nine-year-old girl who is caught shoplifting. As punishment, her mother sends her to spend the summer with her estranged relatives. The practice of having children mature while working on farms is a common Icelandic tradition, but here the right-of-passage is seen as punishment, and Sól feels like she is being truly punished. Finding it difficult to communicate with her aunt and uncle, she confides in the farmhand Jón, a mysterious man battling his own inner demons. The two bond over their shared love of stories, and Sól develops an attachment. Things change when Sol’s cousin Ásta returns home from University, and the drama between Ásta and Jón’s strained relationship is watched on by the confused Sol, not quite sure what she is witnessing or feeling, but she envies Ásta and her closeness to Jón, learns about love, life and death.

A festival favourite, The Swan is a welcoming contemporary Icelandic drama, which through its sensitive poetic essence, captures how a troubled and confused girl is able to discover herself through the disarray of the adults around her. The film relies heavily on its cinematography, and the camerawork is the highlight of the film. Sól is followed very closely, and the camera tries to get inside the girls mind and represent what she is thinking and feeling. The summer light in this remote setting creates a dreamlike quality, and the time Sól and Jón spend together telling each other stories makes for a magical atmosphere. The camerawork places the audience in the sense that they are in a world that is theirs, yet it is unfamiliar, with the sweeping shots swaying and producing a memorable and haunting portrayal of nature. Gríma Valsdóttir is an outstanding young actress, and her depiction of Sól makes this film a joy to watch. While it is slow at times, in true Icelandic fashion, The Swan is an interesting take on the coming-of-age genre, and it ranks alongside Icelandic films like Sparrows and Heartstone, but this time with a female lead.

This review is in the March issue of Cinema Scandinavia. 

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CategoriesIssue 22 Reviews
Emma Vestrheim

Emma Vestrheim is the editor-in-chief of Cinema Scandinavia. Originally from Australia, she is now based in Bergen, Norway, and attends major Nordic film festivals to conduct interviews and review new films.