This is a stark tale of loneliness and grief set against the backdrop of the intense natural beauty of the Icelandic wilderness. More important than this though, it is a tale of acceptance and moving on after a tragedy. All is present in Marteinn Thorsson’s Backyard Village.
After getting released from a health spa and unable to face the mother who abandoned her, Brynja (Laufey Elíasdóttir) takes shelter in a small guesthouse in a village outside of Reykjavik. There she befriends Mark (Tim Plester), a British tourist, who’s dealing with his own personal tragedy. Together they grow and learn how to face their demons.
The theme of mental health is embedded into the film and far more visible compared to earlier works dealing with similar subject matter, such as Irving Rapper’s Now, Voyager (1942), showing just how far we have come as a society when addressing mental health and wellbeing. Still though, you feel the filmmakers nervously shying away when faced with the difficult questions, with some avenues left unexplored and several secondary characters not fully developed. You can’t get away from the thought that this could have been so much more. Its narrative flaws can be forgiven though when introduced to the world that Marteinn Thorsson lovingly crafts.
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Thorsson and the DP, Bergsteinn Björgúlfsson, show no fear in letting their sometimes voyeuristic camera shots linger on a scene far longer than is comfortable, creating a sense of realism and unbroken reality which are rare components in contemporary cinema. This is heightened by the actors delivering vast amounts of dialogue with their backs to the camera. Seemingly switching between the micro, and grand, epic, macro shots of the Icelandic scenery. Framing the actors with such mastery and craftsmanship against the cold mountains of their beloved Iceland. The cinematography could be compared to that of Alejandro G. Iñárritu‘s The Revenant (2015).
The script – which Thorsson co-wrote with Gudmundur Óskarsson – expertly toes the line between comedy and heartbreak. It is notable that the film’s highlights consist of conversations bearing little or no seeming relevance to the plot. These organic conversations supply the backbone of the film and give it the extra human touch. The platonic relationship that blooms between Mark and Brynja puts one in mind of John Carney’s Begin Again (2013) and Sofia Coppola’s Lost in Translation (2003). However, there’s a rawness to Backyard Village that sets it apart. It might be the Icelandic scenery. It might be the realistic performances. It might be the chemistry between the two leads. Whatever it is, you are left with a haunting sense of authenticity.
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Although, admittedly a bit uneven at points, with a couple of missed opportunities for further exploration, the film is nonetheless a well observed and patient study of two lost souls with some truly breathtaking visuals.
Backyard Village is streaming now on Apple TV, and available to rent or buy on Amazon Prime.