The Juniper Tree (1990)

The Juniper Tree
Director: Nietzchka Keene
Writer: Nietzchka Keene
Based on: the Brothers Grimm fairy tale
Cast: Björk, Bryndis Petra Bragadóttir, Valdimar Örn Flygenring, Guðrún Gísladóttir, Geirlaug Sunna Þormar
Seen on: 19.11.2021

Margit (Björk) and her older sister Katla (Bryndis Petra Bragadóttir) had to leave their home after their mother (Guðrún Gísladóttir) was killed for being a witch. Desperate to find a new home, Katla bewitches Jóhann (Valdimar Örn Flygenring), a widowed farmer. Jóhann already has a son, Jónas (Geirlaug Sunna Þormar), who is unwilling to accept Katla, and Katla has little love for him either. As Margit becomes friends with Jónas, she finds herself conflicted in their fight.

The Juniper Tree is probably the most famout Icelandic movie, a gorgeously restored black-and-white fairy tale adaptation that shies away from the clear-cut morality of the original fairy tale.

The film poster showing a black-and-white image of a kneeling Margit (Björk) looking desperately up.

I am not sure whether I would go so far as to say that The Juniper Tree is a feminist re-imagining of the fairy tale, but by adding complexity to it and its characters, in particular Katla as the “evil stepmother”, it does manage to wash the story of much of the misogyny that saturates the fairy tale. Katla is not so much evil, as she is a fighter. She does what she has to to ensure that she survives – and that Margit survives. Jónas, in his refusal to give her the shelter she needs, is a threat that she needs to eliminate.

Meanwhile, Katla’s harshness and her violence frees Margit to remain softer, to be more forgiving. She has the luxury, so to say, to grief for their mother, to empathize with Jónas who is caught in the same grief. Björk’s soft and charismatic presence coupled with her innocent looks are really captivating in that role.

Margit (Björk) sitting next to a simple wooden cross marking a grave.

Ultimately the situation isn’t tenable, though. Something has got to give here, and when it does, it is violent (this is a fairy tale adaptation after all). Since the film doesn’t give us a clear villain here, despite the horrible turn of events, the end lacks the satisfaction that comes at the end of a fairy tale usually. Instead what we’re left with is a lot more grief and devastation than there already was at the beginning. I can’t help but wish for a more positive outcome.

Still, depressing as it may be, the film is well worth seeing, especially in the newly restored form. It’s a film with fantastic cinematography that really gets to shine through the restoration.

Margit (Björk) and Jónas (Geirlaug Sunna Þormar) walking by a river.

Summarizing: pretty captivating.

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