The most disparate elements are woven together into a surprisingly organic and satisfying whole in “How Harry Became a Tree.” Segueing from his critical breakthrough with 1998’s “The Powder Keg” to this assured English-language feature, Goran Paskaljevic has transposed a Chinese fable to 1920s rural Ireland, where its story of consuming hatred between neighbors inevitably serves as a pungent metaphor for the Bosnian conflict, which prevented the Yugoslavian director from making the film on home soil. Gracefully blending dirt realism with oneiric mysticism, and tragedy with a rich vein of humor, this dark ditty should put down roots in sophisticated arthouse markets.
Carrying a considerable portion of the dramatic weight single-handedly and effortlessly embodying the marriage of whimsy, menace and madness that constitutes the film’s singular tone is Colm Meaney in the title role. While the actor has been known to overplay the boisterous Irish wild man at times — in Stephen Frears’ heavy-handed “The Van” for one — his performance here is controlled and complex, as much a sad victim of the character’s own deranged obsession as he is a loose cannon wreaking havoc on enemies and loved ones alike.
A cabbage farmer in the tiny village of Stilton, Harry (Meaney) is tormented by a recurring dream in which he is transformed into a tree and then chopped down for wood to make coffins. Having lost his favorite son in the recent Civil War with England, as well as his wife, who died of grief soon after, Harry has given up on love and instead sees hate as the way to keep the blood flowing through his veins.
“A man is measured by his enemies,” he tells his seemingly doltish, stuttering son Gus (Cillian Murphy). Harry chooses as his enemy the most powerful man in the village, pub owner and store-keeper George (Adrian Dunbar), who also runs a matchmaking sideline, procuring young wives from out of town for a fee.
When Gus takes a shine to George’s new girl Eileen (Kerry Condon), Harry at first opposes the union, but soon sees it as a means to bring about George’s downfall. When George — an inveterate Romeo prone to taking advantage of his girls — has his way with freshly married Eileen, Harry sets about trashing George’s reputation by stirring the community’s righteous anger.
However, the villagers are as disturbed by Harry’s accelerating madness as they are by George’s philandering. Harry then maneuvers Gus to shoot George, and attempts to shame George by driving Eileen to suicide. But the scheme brings about the bitter dissolution of his own family, carving a destiny of desolation and solitude for Harry.
While the roots of hatred and its destructive force represent themes all too tangibly linked to the recent reality of Paskaljevic’s native Balkans, “Harry” is given the added mythical dimensions of a folktale in the script by the director, his wife, Christine Gentet, and Irish writer Stephen Walsh.
Elements of magic and dreams combine with some of the same lively spirit of tragicomic absurdism that made “The Powder Keg” a unique take on the Bosnian conflict. Also brought into play to great effect is the force of nature, through tree imagery from Harry’s nightmare, and the elements, with rain and wind constantly battering the lonely setting. Lenser Milan Spasic’s muted colors and shadowy tones lend further atmosphere to the rural landscapes.
Directing in English for the second time after the little-seen MGM produced 1982 feature “Twilight Time” (his 1995 “Someone Else’s America” also was partly in English), Paskaljevic displays a sure command of his cast. Supporting players provide sturdy backup to Meaney’s powerful centerpiece.
Dunbar makes George sly and superior but not unsympathetic, a “whoremaster” in Harry’s words, but an affectionate rather than indifferent one. Both Gus and Eileen initially appear weak, their actions dictated by those around them, but Murphy and Condon gradually bristle to life as their characters summon the resolve to break away from Harry’s insanity. The bond between the couple — from their instant attraction and love to the tenderness they maintain for each other throughout the humiliating ordeal — is beautifully conveyed.
Stefano Arnaldi’s lovely score ranges from gentle Celtic themes to full-bodied orchestral pieces with choral elements.