Dir. Fridrik ThorFridriksson. Ice-Ger-Den-UK. 2004. 87mins.
A modern fairytale for disenchanted adults, thelatest Fridrik Thor Fridriksson opus looks pretty and cute but lacks the edgeand authenticity that distinguish most of his previous contributions.
Wrapped up inToyland colours for the first half, their tonality soiled later when the storyshifts to a junkyard, Fridriksson's attempt at a philosophical tale isdifficult to take seriously when its point is "finding the purpose of life".
Still, this English-languagefeature has pleasant performances across the board, headed by Ken Loachveterans Martin Compston and Gary Lewis.
Festivals willdoubtless be as interested as they have been in all of Fridriksson's earlierwork, but theatrical prospects are less promising - unless it is supported bymore enthusiastic reviews than it has had so far.
There is also aquestion over how distributors will position Niceland in the market: it remains to be seen whether enough adultsare still interested in this kind of fairytale or enough teens will besufficiently mature to care about it.
Jed (Compston) andChloe (Bjarndottir) are two youths with learning difficulties who love eachother and work together in a warehouse with other, more visibly handicappedpeople of their own age.
One evening, Jedproposes marriage and Chloe joyfully accepts. Just as she does so, her belovedcat, Catey, jumps out of his hands and into the street, where it is run over bya car. Shattered, Chloe cuts herself off from the rest of the world and willnot open up again until Jed provides her with a proper purpose for life.
One night, ontelevision, Jed sees Max (Lewis), a man who lives in a junkyard, sells scrapmetal and pretends to know what life is really all about. Undaunted byrejections, Jed moves into a caravan in Max's yard, works himself into hisfavour and tries to extract the secret from him. All he gets instead is a sad,familiar story which explains how Max became the eccentric recluse he now is.
As Chloe's conditionworsens so Jed puts more pressure on his mentor, but to no avail, for, as hediscovers, Max has nothing to offer. Instead the answer - which of courseFridriksson does not reveal to the audience - is hidden deep inside Jedhimself. Once he comes up with it, he rushes the story to one of the rare happyendings in Fridriksson's filmography.
Using a kind ofdeadpan humour that suggests the films of Hal Hartley (see Henry Fool)or Aki Kaurismaki more than his own, Fridriksson sets his film in an imaginarycity called Niceland. It is a shockingly well-behaved, polite and calm place,where normal adults, like Jed's parents (Capaldi and Fox) are bored slaves toroutine whose intellectual curiosity is fully satisfied by the ever-blaring TVset. It is only those at society's edges who still maintain a degree ofhumanity and generate some of the feelings and warmth that have dried upeverywhere else.
As pleasant as Nicelandis to watch, there is a whiff of Euro-pudding to the project and it lacks thewild urgency of the director's earlier pictures. Fridriksson, working withGerman, Danish and British producers and a script written by someone else, hasto deal with a bunch of characters deprived of any real roots, possibly becauseNiceland is supposed to be everywhere and nowhere.
None of the issuesare dealt with in any depth as to do so would make the story's background farmore specific than it wants to be. The result is a romp through themes ofmodern urban angst, brought forth by the classic subterfuge of outsiderstelling the truths no one else dares to mouth.
Compston has Jeddown to a T, naïve, soulful, aching and eager to obtain the magic formula thatwill rescue his sleeping beauty from her depressed slumber, while Bjarnadottir,a modern-day Candide is determined, wide-eyed and innocent. Gary Lewis offers ahighly competent performance as the ill-tempered hermit hiding inside rottingmountains of metal refuse, whose supposed wisdom holds as long as he preserveshis silence.
The rest of the castis similarly well attuned. Fox returns to her Shallow Grace Scottishaccent and Timmy Lang, who has Down's Syndrome smoothly handles his one-liners.Danish cinematographer Morton Soborg and production designer Johannsson provideFridriksson with some of his most polished visuals yet and efficient editingkeeps everything moving briskly along.
Prodcos: Zik ZakFilmworks, Tradewind Pictures, Nimbus Films, Film & Music Entertainment
Int'l sales: BavariaFilm International
Prods: SkuliMalmquist, Thor S Sigurjohnsson
Co-prods: Mike Downey, Bo Ehrhardt, Meta Louise Foldager, Thomas Springer,Sam Taylor, Helmut G Weber
Cine: Morten Soborg
Ed: Anders Refn,Sigvaldi J. Karason
Prod des: Arni PallJohannsson
Main cast: MartinCompston, Gary Lewis, Gudrun Bjarnadottir, Kerry Fox, Peter Capaldi, TimmyLang, Shauna Macdonald