Title: The Tree
Director: Julie Bertucelli
Starring: Charlotte Gainsbourg, Morgana Davies, Marton Csokas, Aden Young, Gillian Jones, Penne Hackforth-Jones, Christian Bayers, Tom Russell, Gabriel Gotting, Zoe Boe
A tender, well sketched drama of familial reconnection and rebirth in the wake of tragedy, Julie Bertucelli’s The Tree, a French-Australian co-production set in the rural environs of the latter country, for the most part successfully balances the literal and metaphorical in its telling of coping with loss, and trying to move on after the death of a loved one. Engaging acting and some gorgeous and involving cinematography make this movie a treat for arthouse audiences.
When her truck-driver husband Peter (Aden Young) has a heart attack, Dawn O’Neil (Charlotte Gainsbourg) is devastated, but tries to put on a good face and provide a solid foundation for her four children, including teenager Tim (Christian Bayers), Lou (Tom Russell), and young Charlie (Gabriel Gotting), who stops talking entirely. It may be eight-year-old Simone (Morgana Davies), however, who takes things the hardest. A daddy’s girl through and through, she becomes convinced that her father is whispering to her through the huge fig tree that towers over their house — an assertion fraught with significance given that it’s this tree into which Peter lightly crashed when he died. As months pass, Dawn doesn’t push or try to dissuade Simone of her belief, but when she eventually goes into the nearby town seeking employment, and meets store owner George Elrick (Marton Csokas), his increasing presence at family gatherings — along with the deteriorating condition of the tree — upsets Simone and rekindles all sorts of unsettled feelings.
Adapted from Judy Pascoe’s novel Our Father Who Art in the Tree, Bertucelli’s movie passingly registers as a sort of gender-swap version of The Boys Are Back, another Australian-set drama starring Clive Owen as a widowed working dad trying to repair relationships with his sons, and also navigate his way into a possible new relationship. Bertucelli, who worked as an assistant director under Bertrand Tavernier, Krzysztof Kieslowski and Otar Iosseliani, won numerous awards — including the Grand Jury Prize of the Critic’s Week at the Cannes Film Festival, and the Cesar for Best First Film — for her narrative feature debut, Since Otar Left. With The Tree, she segues into what may on the surface seem more conventionally dramatic territory, but for the most part with a deft avoidance of the sort of cliches that mark far more mawkish genre entries of this type.
Adapted by Bertucelli from a separately credited screenplay by Elizabeth Mars, The Tree doesn’t merely dote on Simone’s connection to her father. It invests in the other characters, illustrating in savvy fashion how everyone grieves in their own manner, and on their own timetable. (Teenager Tim, for instance, is sad, but matter-of-fact about his father’s passing, and tries to help his mother and family by getting a job to generate extra income.) As the tree becomes a sort of nuisance and hazard to match its beauty (a storm snaps off a dead branch that comes through the house’s roof, while its invasive roots, already above ground, wreak havoc on the house’s plumbing lines and foundation), Bertucelli doesn’t dramatically press down on the keys of metaphorical parallel, the way a less confident director might, or certainly an American studio version of this same story.
The film only really falters in its third act. A pivot point where George arrives, at Dawn’s request, to finally cut down the tree, only to encounter Simone staging a sort of protest sit-in, rings false in the manner in which it plays out. And the finale, involving another act of Mother Nature, also takes too long to play out, stretching out over 20 minutes and padding the movie’s running time to just over 100 minutes.
It’s not wildly original in the moves it makes, but still The Tree is an engaging drama of emotional regeneration that avoids pandering to the lowest-common-denominator in the mode of its telling. Nigel Bluck’s fine cinematography makes beautiful showcase of the movie’s location settings. And while Gainsbourg is known for her famous father, her singing and, most recently, her edgy work in Lars von Trier’s Antichrist, it’s easy to forget her considerable facility with open-hearted normalcy; she delivers a fine, anchoring turn as Dawn. The young Davies, meanwhile, is also quite good — engaging and natural. She makes you feel sorry for young Simone without making her pitiable and one-dimensional. Together, they’re the strongest roots of Bertucelli’s Tree.
Written by: Brent Simon