The Juniper Tree (1990) – Film Review
Director: Nietzchka Keene
Cast: Björk, Bryndis Petra Bragadóttir, Valdimar Örn Flygenring
By Sarah Morgan
Sometimes certain films are almost impossible to define.
A recent episode of Screenshot, Mark Kermode and Ellen E Jones’s excellent Radio 4 programme dedicated to the cinema, focused on the creation of trailers, those mini-adverts designed to entice members of the public to see a movie.
How do their makers decide which parts to concentrate on? Are they always truthful, or do they twist the facts to make a production more appealing? It transpired that distilling the essence of a story into a couple of minutes was a tricky task.
One imagines whoever was entrusted with trying to explain why somebody should part with their well-earned cash to see The Juniper Tree had a thankless task. Not because it’s a bad film, far from it, but because it’s so ethereal; there is a story, but it’s as much about imagery and atmosphere as it is plot.
The screenplay was inspired by the Brothers Grimm tale of the same name. It’s not a classic that stands alongside the likes of Hansel and Gretel, Sleeping Beauty, Snow White and their other famous fairy tales, but director Nietzchka Keene, who also wrote the film, manages to elevate it, turning it into a spellbinding medieval fable set in rural Iceland.
Many will be attracted to it by the presence of Björk. It was released in 1990, several years before she became an international star thanks to her singing career. Although 21 at the time of shooting in 1986, she looks much younger, delivering a sensitive, touching portrayal of Margit who, along with her elder sister Katia, is forced to flee her home after her mother is stoned to death for being a witch.
Katia casts a spell to find herself a husband, and soon wins the affection of widower Johann. Unfortunately, his young son Jonas, despite his growing friendship with Margit, refuses to accept Katia as his stepmother, causing friction within the household that leads to tragedy.
Keene was an American indie film-maker who had worked as a research assistant to Dr Jesse Byock, an Old Icelandic language expert, prior to making The Juniper Tree. That role clearly enabled her to understand the setting, adding depth to the story and her imagery which is, at times, astonishing – there are moments when the characters seem to emerge from the landscape itself, as if they’re a part of it.
Cinematographer Randy Sellars deserves a lot of credit for the atmospheric feel of the film too; his black and white photography is simply stunning. If someone like Freddie Francis, Jack Cardiff or Roger Deakins had shot it, I’m sure it would have received at the very least an Oscar nomination.
Sadly, Keene only made two more films before her untimely death at the age of 52 in 2004, robbing us of a major visionary talent. The Juniper Tree stands as a testament to her skill.
● Presented in High Definition
● 4K restoration from the original 35mm camera negative
● New feature commentary by Icelandic cultural scholar Dr Guðrún D Whitehead
● Still (1978, 4 mins), Hinterland (1981, 25 mins), Aves (1998, 7 mins): three remastered short films by Nietzchka Keene
● Randy Sellars on The Juniper Tree (2019, 29 mins): video interview with the film’s cinematographer
● Interview with Nietzchka Keene (2002, 15 mins)
● Outtakes from The Juniper Tree (5 mins)
● The Witch’s Fiddle (1924, 7 mins): a British folk rarity from the BFI National Archive
● Iceland – The Land of Ice and Fire (1929, 22 mins): little-seen footage of Iceland from the silent cinema era
● US theatrical trailer
The Juniper Tree is released on Blu-ray by the BFI, £19.99