In structure a memory play, “The Dance” is an effective ghost story, handsomely produced and professionally realized. Filmmaker August Gudmundsson brings enough novel twists to the familiar mix to engage upscale crowds and score international dates outside Scandinavia. Pic should also find OK niche response in ancillary exploitation.
Story is set on a sparsely populated island in 1913. Narrator Peter (Gunnar Helgason) recalls the time when the lonely outpost was invaded by mainlanders attending a wedding celebration. The free-spirited Sirsa (Palina Jonsdottir) is about to be united with Harald (Dofri Hermannsson), son of the island’s most prosperous landowner. It seems an odd match of temperaments, with the young, flirtatious woman more obviously suited to the charismatic Ivar (Baldur Trausti Hreinsson). But the wedding ceremony proceeds without a hitch and the revelry commences.
The festivities are interrupted when news arrives that offshore a ship is sinking — not an uncommon occurrence in this grave site of the Atlantic. The men depart on a rescue mission that nets several sailors, including the doomed craft’s captain and engineer. After shaking off their oilskins, the men resume their positions in the circle for the next dance.
With a storm raging, the men from the ship are full of foreboding, but the natives take it in stride, even entertaining the idea of a latenight, illegal salvage party to pilfer the waterlogged cargo.
When news reaches the party that the engineer has died, the local clergyman asks the guests to stop the dance out of respect for the departed seaman. Sirsa protests, but Harald and the old liners cower before the demand — a mistake that all will come to rue.
The title conjures up several metaphors but clearly underlines the ritual nature of the gathering, whose momentum is stopped in its tracks. The interruption causes the participants to find other ways of completing the rite of passage — none particularly a testament to human virtue.
Some of the young men set out for the ship, others for a drunken spree at a cottage on the other end of the island; some partygoers pursue the opposite sex, and Sirsa cozies up to Ivar only partly because of her new husband’s decision to curtail the wedding festivities.
Whether it’s magic or deviltry in the air, the manmade mischief deftly segues into the forces of nature that batter the island. The elders express shame and anger over the conduct of the wedding party, but the filmmaker views the antics as an organic process in this environment, in which a jacket can mystically transform into a soaring eagle.
Gudmundsson, whose early-1980s films “Land and Sons” and “The Outlaw” were bellwethers of an emerging Icelandic cinema, returns to film after a decade-long absence. There’s a maturity to his work and a controlled story sensibility that puts one at ease in such capable hands. Helmer’s graceful, precise style contrasts sharply with the howling winds and fierce rains that pummel the characters.
Tech credits are richly hued and amplified by a haunting score that incorporates traditional folk music. The cast is vividly drawn, down to the tiniest part. Jonsdottir is a sensuous presence, while those who play her suitors ably convey contrasting lifestyles but a humanity cut from the same bolt of cloth.