Dir: Hilmar Oddsson. Ice-Ger-UK-Nor. 2004. 92mins.
There must be a law in Iceland stipulating that local films should contain one or more of the following: a) a weird and lonely hero; b) an avalanche; c) cod fishermen vs the cruel sea; d) magical powers, especially the ability to predict the future. In the wake of the international arthouse success of Noi The Albino, this make-an-Icelandic-film starter kit has even started to look like a money spinner.
But Noi worked abroad not so much because of its specifically Icelandic themes as because it had a brilliantly quirky central character, who frustrated and fascinated the audience by turns. Despite the piercing sky blue eyes of Icelandic leading man Ingvar E Sigurdsson, which pin us to the wall from a hundred yards, the clairvoyant-naif-artist Grimur, tongue-tied hero of Hilmar Oddsson's fourth film, does not command quite the same level of interest.
In the end, Cold Light is an intriguing but not entirely satisfying curio. Although local audiences have responded warmly, it is not going to become the multi-territory 'Return Of Noi' that some of the early buzz had predicted. Well-received at Gothenburg (where it was the opening film of the festival) but rather lost in the crowd at Berlin's Panorma sidebar, Oddsson's film has already enjoyed some foreign sales. But it is altogether a less sophisticated urban arthouse prospect than Noi, and cannot aspire to the same word-of-mouth buzz.
Still, the film covers all the plot bases mentioned above, and despite the weakness of its hoary old "psychologically-damaged-man-explores-bottled-up-trauma-through-art" storyline and the occasional stiff and wooden conjunction of acting and dialogue, it has a brooding, edgy atmosphere that keeps us watching.
Some of the credit for this must go to Sigurdur Suerrer Palsson's moody camerawork, which racks up the tension by pushing his celluloid palette slowly but inexorably towards the "cold light" of the title, as summer is replaced by winter.
Grimur (Ingvar E Sigurdsson, last seen by international audiences in K19: The Widowmaker) is a lonely, shy, uncommunicative 40-year-old man who appears to be haunted by some traumatic event from his childhood. It pretty soon becomes clear that the cataclysm that changed his life was an avalanche which the young Grimur (played, appropriately, by Aslakur Ingvarsson who as his patronymic surname suggests - is Ingvar's son in real life) predicted but failed to prevent.
The action switches back and forth between modern-day Reykjavik, where Grimur enrols in an art class, and the fishing village where he grew up, in the shadow of a mountain that is a menacing presence throughout. Young Grimur is intense and reticent: he is plagued by visions, some of which he commits to paper in endless drawings. It is only when he pays a visit to an old laundrywoman who has a reputation for being a bit of a witch (played with a fine mixture of down-to-earth bustle and supernatural menace by veteran Icelandic actress Kristbjorg Kjeld) that Grimur learns to respect his gift.
These long flashback scenes, shot on what feels like darker, grainier stock, develop a kind of fairy-tale authority. One scene in particular where the wives and the children stand on the dock, waiting to find out which boat didn't make it back from the men's fishing fleet is moving and memorable.
The modern day frame is less persuasive. Grimur's fling with his drawing teacher Linda (a less than impressive Ruth Olafsdottir) feels false from beginning to end, and there is no real explanation why she should be American, unless it be to give English-speaking audiences a rest from subtitles.
Production co: Icelandic Film Corporation
Co-prods: Lichtblick Filmproduktion, Film & Music Entertainment Limited, Filmhuset
International sales: Media Luna
Executive producer: Fridrik Thor Fridriksson
Producer: Anna Maria Karlsdottir
Co-producers: Helga Bahr, Mike Downey, Sam Taylor, Egil Odegard
Screenplay: Hilmar Oddsson, from the novel by Vigdis Grimsdottir
Cinematography: Sigurdur Suerrer Palsson
Production design: Sigurjon Johansson
Editor: Sigvaldi J Karason
Music: Hjalmar Ragnarsson
Main cast: Ingvar E Sigurdsson, Aslakur Ingvarsson, Snaefridur Ingvarsdottir, Ruth Olafsdottir, Kristbjorg Kjeld, Helga Braga Jonsdottir