Judge Clark Douglas plans to inhabit a blueberry bush after he passes away.
A mystical drama of loss and rebirth.
As I watched Julie Bertucelli's The Tree, the same thought kept wandering through my mind: "This would probably work much better as a novel." Indeed, the film is based on a generally well-regarded book by Judy Pascoe (bearing the more colorful title Our Father Who Art in the Tree), but the film strains to sell us on the idea that it has more than an overbearing (if undeniably effective) metaphor up its sleeve.
The story concerns an ordinary family living in Australia. Dawn (Charlotte Gainsbourg, The City of Your Final Destination) and Peter O'Neil (Aden Young, Killer Elite) have three children and live in a simple country neighborhood. Alas, their happy life is upended when Peter suffers a heart attack. Dawn struggles to mask her depression during a series of intrusive visits from neighbors, while eight-year-old Simone (Morgana Davies, Terra Nova) becomes convinced that her father's spirit is residing in the giant fig tree in the O'Neil family's front yard. She'll frequently climb up into the tree and engage in hushed one-way conversation with her departed dad.
As time passes, Dawn begins to heal and even starts up a relationship with local handiman George Elrick (Marton Csokas, The Bourne Supremacy). However, the fig tree has begun to introduce a new series of problems. Its roots are digging into the family's plumbing system, and it's threatening to cause problems for the entire neighborhood. Dawn knows she needs to cut it down, but Morgana angrily declares that to cut down the tree would be to cut down her father's spirit. The situation continues to spiral out of control until the family is pushed to their breaking point.
The primary metaphor The Tree offers is unquestionably potent: the tree supposedly containing Peter's spirit is tearing the O'Neil home apart, much in the way that unresolved grief can tear a family apart internally. Painful as the process may be, the tree/grief has to be confronted eventually. This is a solid idea to build a story around, but it feels like the only worthwhile idea The Tree has to offer. On a more fundamental level (that is to say, as a story about a group of people attempting to cope with the loss of a loved one), the film fails to find a way to makes the basic material compelling. The characters seem real and sympathetic, but there are too many scenes which feel like padding between the intriguing set-up and the explosive conclusion.
Frustratingly, even the should-be-cathartic final reel doesn't have the impact it ought to, as the otherwise assured Bertucelli struggles to give the sequence (a destructive thunderstorm which brings all of the film's conflicts to a head) the sort of cinematic punch it ought to have. She seems overwhelmed by the challenges of wrangling nasty weather; it's a surprising letdown given the potent images she provides earlier in the film.
If The Tree is worth seeing, it's for the impressive performances of Gainsbourg and Davies. The former has such a distinctive, fascinating screen presence; there's something curiously contradictory about those sad eyes, that rigid jaw, that scrawny frame and that wispy, delicate Anglo-French accent. She sells Dawn's internal struggles effortlessly, though I suppose nearly any acting task must seem effortless after enduring the role of She in Lars von Trier's Antichrist. Meanwhile, Davies introduces herself as the new child actor to watch, demonstrating a natural charisma and boldness which is very effective. She's tremendous as both the loopy free spirit of the opening act (she likes to scream at passing trains for kicks) and as the increasingly sulky daughter attempting to cope with the loss of her father.
The Tree arrives on DVD sporting a rather handsome transfer. The level of detail is a bit more impressive than usual for a standard-def release, and shadow delineation is impressive during the film's later scenes. Audio is also sturdy, with an understated score and some gentle pop songs generally dominating the track. Despite the film's heavy emphasis on nature, sound design is fairly low-key and inactive. Supplements include a making-of documentary, some deleted scenes, a trailer, and a booklet containing a brief interview with Bertucelli (who apparently adapted the novel because she desperately wanted to make a film about a tree).
While I found The Tree a bit too thin, it's a well-intentioned flick boasting some impressive performances from its female leads. Not really worth your time, yet not an unpleasant way to pass 100 minutes.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Zeitgeist Films
• Deleted Scenes
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