A vampish young widow melts the reserve of a small Icelandic town in “The Seagull’s Laughter,” a sprightly, enjoyable comedy-drama from veteran Agust Gudmundsson that’s buoyed by a raft of excellent distaff performances. Pic’s postwar setting, widescreen lensing, big-band jazz soundtrack and gently ironic tone make this the most marketable Icelandic production since “101 Reykjavik,” and could reap some similarly warm niche returns in the hands of the right distribs.
Incredibly, pic has waited more than eight months for its international premiere — at the Karlovy Vary fest, where it picked up a well-deserved best actress gong for young Ugla Egilsdottir, as the girl through whose eyes the story unfolds. Preemed locally last October to good business, the film won most of Iceland’s major awards for 2001, including picture, director and actress. It certainly re-establishes Gudmundsson as the isle’s most versatile and accessible helmer after a diversion of almost two decades largely spent in TV.
Freyja (Margret Vilhjalmsdottir) walks into the life of a small fishing community some time after WWII, returning from the U.S. where her husband died. At least, that’s what she says, and the locals — all unworldly gullibility, mixed with a strong dose of envy — largely accept her story as they admire her smart clothes, New World sophistication and sexual swagger.
One of pic’s nicest touches is that the audience is led to suspect early on — though never told for sure — that Freyja’s story may all be a bunch of baloney, that she may even have murdered her American husband. This ambiguity, established by both the script and Vilhjalmsdottir’s perf, sets the stage for the pic’s equally ambiguous climax.
In the extended family into which she re-settles, the only member to doubt her story is her cousin, Agga (Egilsdottir), an 11-year-old on the brink of puberty who’s torn between admiration and loathing for Freyja. She pours out her lurid imaginings about Freyja’s past to Magnus (Hilmir Snaer Gudnason, from “101 Reykjavik”), the handsome local cop, who simply smiles genially.
Meanwhile, Freyja sets her sights on wealthy engineer Bjorn Theodor (Heino Ferch), reigniting their old relationship in hopes of deflecting him from marrying the mayor’s daughter. After unsuccessfully trying to trash Freyja behind her back, Agga ends up encouraging her and Theodor to get together, in an engaging sequence halfway through the movie where she and a friend steam open — and doctor — the lovers’ correspondence.
However, when Freyja moves into Theodor’s ritzy home, she comes up against his powerful, snobbish mother. And Freyja’s subsequent ambitions — opening a clothes shop, flirting with Magnus, getting pregnant — sow the seeds of disaster.
Adapted from Kristin Marja Baldursdottir’s novel, pic decorates the central story with a wealth of peripheral detail: Agga’s elder sister, Dodo (Edda Bjorg Eyjolfsdottir), and her b.f. problems; a two-timed wife prevented from suicide by Freyja; and Theodor’s ex, Birna (Halldora Geirhardsdottir), who reappears on the scene. Not all the relationships are clearly explained — especially Freyja’s extended family, largely women — which is needlessly confusing in the early stages.
Despite the drab Arctic setting, Peter Joachim Krause’s widescreen compositions give the film a big, often picturesque feel, especially in those moments where Freyja, like some Viking goddess, goes wandering at night in the icy wastes around the town. Without overdoing the vamping, Vilhjalmsdottir manages to make her character half angel and half devil, sensuous but also mischievous.
Similarly, helmer Gudmundsson never lets the movie become too serious, retaining a sardonic tone through the use of bouncy big-band classics on the soundtrack and dialogue that often contains a comedic sting. “This country swallows you. It’s cold, dark and full of evil,” says Freyja, adding, “and I can’t stand the smell of fish.”
With her Christina Ricci-like eyes and girl-woman emotional swings, Egilsdottir is aces as Agga, who starts to come into her own at the halfway mark and gradually takes the picture over Both Eyjolfsdottir and Gudlaug Elisabet Olafsdottir are very good as Agga’s sisters, and other distaffers are excellent in the ensemble scenes that climax the movie.
As the two main men in the story, Gudnason is fine in a smallish role as the knowing local cop, while German thesp Ferch is cleverly dubbed into Icelandic without making it too obvious.
Exact time in which story is set is never spelled out on screen, though a reference to Errol Flynn getting married places it in 1950.