Life is a force of nature.
Dawn (Charlotte Gainsbourg) lives with her husband, Peter (Aden Young), in a lonely, tumbledown Australian farmhouse. Of their four children, Simone (Morgana Davies) is her father’s favourite. Returning home one day with Simone, Peter suffers a heart attack at the wheel of his truck, which careers off the road and comes to rest amid the tangled roots of a Moreton Bay fig growing next to their house. Simone is convinced that her dead father’s spirit lives on in the tree. She talks to him at night. She hears his voice. And Dawn, somewhat reluctantly, goes along with the pretence.
The tree becomes the film’s central character, a forbidding and sinister presence. Not only are its leafy branches pressed against the sweet-smelling earth, its roots are pressed against the foundations of Dawn’s house. Sooner or later the house will give way or the tree will have to go. Meanwhile, leafy arms are creeping through windows and verandas; a branch crashes through the roof into Dawn’s bedroom. Drains are clogged.
Something must be done. On a visit to town, Dawn seeks the services of George (Marton Csokas). George runs a business selling bathroom fittings, and is only too happy to stand in as a plumber for a widow as attractive as Dawn. He also offers her a job. The two are drawn to each other, much to the dismay of Simone, who remains loyal to her father’s memory. Simone spends more and more time in the tree, climbing to ever higher branches and refusing to come down.
Australian filmmakers have a good record with spooky stories in the wild. Peter Weir showed the way with Picnic At Hanging Rock; there was Colin Eggleston’s wonderfully creepy, and largely forgotten, Long Weekend, Samantha Lang’s The Well and James Bogle’s enigmatic In The Winter Dark.
But there is nothing of the supernatural in Bertuccelli’s film: everything can be rationally explained, which makes it at once more unsettling and more moving. The temptation to make a ghost story has been resisted. Even so, when Simone and her mother call out Peter’s name and the camera dwells on the dark tangled innards of the tree, we find ourselves listening for some faint answering sound. Was that the murmur of the wind, the rustling of leaves?
The performances seem to me flawless. Gainsbourg has played tougher roles before (in Alejandro Iñárritu’s 21 Grams and Lars von Trier’s Antichrist), but her wiry good looks seem thoroughly at home in an Australian setting, despite traces of an English accent. Csokas projects a natural warmth and charm.
But the film belongs to Davies, who was seven when she played Simone. I am constantly astonished by the work of child actors these days. Where do seven-year-olds (and younger) learn their acting skills? How do they manage such artlessness, such conviction, such naturalism, such depths of understanding?
The Tree stands high on any list of fine Australian films of recent years. There is a message of hope and happiness, of course, never more vividly conveyed than in the scene during a beach holiday when Dawn and Simone play together in the surf. We are left to conclude that happiness is something we can acquire for ourselves, whatever cards have been dealt. As Dawn says: ‘I choose to be happy, and I am happy.’ She may be too much of an optimist, but we love her for it.
In its alternating moods of light and darkness, realism and mystery, gladness and sorrow, this modest film comes close to perfection.
– Evan Williams, The Australian