Review: Fascinating film rooted in grief

A spell-bounding piece in the world of film, Julia Bertuccelli’s The Tree personifies man’s recurring struggle with grief.

“I owe it to the craft that I am doing to put in the best films,” Stony Brook Film Festival Director Alan Inkles told the press, reinforcing Inkles’ decision to incorporate Bertuccelli’s work in this year’s festival.

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Morgana Davies as Simone in "The Tree".

On July 28, hundreds filled the rows of Stony Brook University’s Staller Center theater to catch a viewing of Bertuccelli’s French-Australian cinematographic masterpiece, The Tree.

Bertuccelli’s film, based on Julie Pascoe’s novel Our Father Who Art in the Tree, follows the lives of the recently widowed Dawn O’Neil (Charlotte Gainsbourg) and her four children. Dawn’s husband, Peter (Aden Young), has just been killed by a sudden heart attack, dying beneath the all-encompassing Moreton Bay fig tree in the family’s yard, and Dawn must now attempt to live and move on with the omnipresent presence of her husband by her side. Soon after, Dawn’s youngest daughter, Simone (Morgana Davies), begins to claim that she can hear whispers from her father through the branches of the fig tree.

Eight months later, Dawn, although still stricken by the loss of her husband, pursues a relationship with George (Marton Csokas), the local plumber. From then on, the tree’s branches and roots begin to burgeon, seeping like dark wings over the O’Neil household, and eventually the tree becomes embedded within the very heartstrings of the family. Soon enough, the tree’s size begins to threaten the well-being of not only the family’s house but also the O’Neils themselves. When George pronounces that the tree is too dangerous to tolerate any further, it becomes clear the film can only end in two scenarios: the fall of the tree or the fall of the family.

From the start, the film’s composition is exquisite. The Tree opens with a serene hammock scene between Dawn and Peter, which soon fades out to pan over the honey-gold light of the Australian countryside. We see the breeze move through yellow wheat as Bertuccelli perfectly captures the ethereal sunlight. This continues throughout the movie, with stunning scenes of light sifting through the outstretched branches of the fig tree and pink and violet rays stretched over the morning horizon.

The director’s shots of the tree, ranging from drawn-out close-ups of the white-speckled wrinkles on the fig’s bark to subtle images of the O’Neil family with the tree’s deep green leafy branches groping out in the forefront, truly give it unsettling traces of life and activity. Nearly every scene of the O’Neil’s isolated house emphasizes the idyllic nature of the family’s world, setting each member apart from the otherwise bustling, busy world of the living. Also, Bertuccelli continuously utilizes shadows to her advantage to not only create stunning images but to evoke the ghost of the household’s lost father.

Following Peter’s funeral, the camera ventures silently across the house, showing just subtly the prolonged presence of Peter in the house: a photo on the wall of Peter holding a string bass and, moments later, an unfocused image of the very string bass laid to rest in the dark background.

Though the transitions of scenes within the first half hour of the film are a little choppy, Bertuccelli surprisingly handles her story extremely well. This is no melodramatic Nicholas Sparks-inspired sob story. Though the film opens with a tragedy, Peter’s death is sudden and almost painless, with no gruesome close-ups of blood and no booming, drum-filled orchestral sequences or sappy violin music. The funeral also is quick, and we see no  lengthy scenes of Dawn or the children bawling. The curious scene is set as Simone comments, “No one’s crying,” and her friend Megan (Zoe Boe) replies with a blunt, “That’s how it is.”

Though the film is clearly one centered on grief, Bertuccelli does not overdo it, allowing her talented cast to portray the family’s bereavement rather than point it out with neon signs, depressing shots, and a “boo-hoo” sort of soundtrack. Bertuccelli offers a more realistic sort of balance and subtleness in her portrayal of mourning, weaving in happy scenes between Dawn’s breakdowns and sobs and even a bit of light comedy at times.

Of course, The Tree would be nothing without its cast. The film features some of the most convincing actresses and actors of our time. Charlotte Gainsbourg, as the grief-ridden Dawn, slips into character with expert ease. In the beginning, she epitomizes a widow stagnated by shock and sorrow, continuously escaping to her room to cradle herself and cry, and dragging herself about the house as if she’s truly lost contact with the living.

However, the real stunner is newcomer Morgana Davies, who plays the strong-headed, somewhat bratty Simone, who refuses to allow her family to move forward. Davies truly captures the complex emotion of a child who has suffered loss. At times, she is bitter and stares disbelievingly at the world around her, transfixed by its ability to seemingly disregard the lost life of her father. However, she also absorbs Simone’s strong and clear-headed nature, effortlessly uttering bold lines at more somber moments. At one point, while discussing the death of her father, Simone says nonchalantly to a friend, “You have a choice to be happy or sad, and I choose to be happy. And I am happy.”

Even more impressive is, strange to say, Davies’ chemistry with the Moreton Bay fig tree with which Simone associates her father. Davies seems to fit perfectly into the hallowed roots of the tree, and, many times, appears almost supernatural, hugging the bark of the aging plant and staring into the bright light peeking through the tree’s thick canopy of leaves and branches. The tree often seems to return her embrace, soaking her gold hair with rays of soft sun.

The rest of the cast is phenomenal as well. Dawn’s other children — the mute 3-year old Charlie (Gabriel Gotting), Lou (Tom Russell), the middle child, and the new leader of the household Tim (Christian Byers) — each serve as solid blocks in the film’s foundation. Christian Byers steps right up to the role of a developing man, slipping into the strong character of Tim like a pro and always evoking the spirit of a youth yearning for an escape from the rural life.

Gabriel Gotting does well for his age, slipping subtly yet effectively his one line at the end of the film: “I don’t want to die.”

Bertuccelli develops her characters well throughout the movie, especially that of Simone. To Simone, it seems that everyone is trying to forget their former life. Her mother has found George, Tim has plans to move away to Sydney, Lou has other interests besides her tree, and Charlie has yet to verbally approach the subject of their late father.

Throughout the film, Simone attempts to urge her family to remain stagnant. At the same, her family urges Simone to get on with her life. Towards the end, her older brother, Tim, confronts her and yells, “You’re needed amongst the living,” to which Simone replies, “And the dead.”

In the end, the film seeks to resolve the issue of grief in one’s life. A widow herself, Bertuccelli is no stranger to the subject of grief and handles it realistically and consistently. Like the tree, grief continues to grow, rooting itself in the most vulnerable places and ultimately threatening to replace and destroy everything in its path.

However, The Tree is an uplifting film which also sees the natural collapse of grief and the hope of a future. “It’s a real emotional film, and it’s heavy,” festival Director Inkles said. “And yet there’s a togetherness with it that really brings people together.”