The lives of three characters intertwine in “Life in a Fishbowl,” a strongly acted, sensitively directed drama that reps a big step forward for Icelandic director Baldvin Zophoniasson after his 2010 teen meller, “Jitters.” This naturalistic portrait of fraught lifestyles in Reykjavik on the eve of the country’s 2008 economic meltdown touched a nerve on home turf, outdrawing Hollywood blockbusters to become one of the island’s biggest-ever domestic hits. Niche arthouse sales and further fest dates are in the offing for this probable foreign-language Oscar entry.
Each of the three central characters leads a double life, and each must make some difficult changes in order to find redemption. First we meet pretty Eik (Hera Hilmarsdottir), the very young mother of a diabetic 8-year-old. She can’t make ends meet as a nursery-school teacher, so she moonlights as a high-end prostitute. Eik’s path begins to intersect more and more with that of ragged, bearded Mori (Thorsteinn Bachmann), a poet and novelist who has been a raging alcoholic since a tragic incident 20 years earlier. Although he looks and behaves like a down-and-out street person, he actually owns a nice home in a desirable district.
Meanwhile, Solvi (Thor Kristjansson), a former soccer star recruited into the snake pit of international banking, wants the rights to Mori’s property in order to facilitate a major downtown development. As he climbs the slippery pole to the top of his new profession, he starts to lose touch with his beautiful wife Agnes (Kristin Lea Sigridardottir), and their little daughter, one of the tots at Eik’s nursery school.
While these characters might have been mere stereotypes in other hands, Zophoniasson and co-writer Birgir Steinarsson give them nuance and depth. Just when viewers might think that they know everything there is to know about the protagonists from their initial appearance, the script delves deeper, revealing complications and contradictions.
Zophoniasson further compels audience attention by cutting in a fourth storyline that consists of flashbacks to Mori’s past. These provide crucial information about the mystery of the attention he pays to little girls of a certain age, as well as his attraction to a pond near the center of town and fondness for a battered postcard. Eik, too, is hiding dark family secrets, revealed in a scene that somewhat taxes credibility (even though Zophoniasson disclosed in a post-screening Q&A that this plot point came directly from his family life).
Although he initially appears to be a straight-laced family man, Solvi is not immune to the excess of the bankers’ lifestyle. A “business” trip to Florida with no wives allowed leads to a fateful encounter between Solvi and Eik, whom he fails to recognize as his daughter’s teacher.
Never feeling overlong, the 130-minute running time gives the characters and their background stories room to breathe. Zophoniasson shows respect to all of his characters, making even the minor ones feel well-rounded; it’s not surprising to learn that the performances were developed over a period of rehearsal and improvisation.
Good-looking widescreen visuals by talented lenser Johann Mani Johannsson create the feeling of perpetual scrutiny that goes with the expression “living in a fishbowl.” The fading light and wet weather of an autumnal Reykjavik, where people try to stay cozy indoors, makes a nice contrast to the Florida scenes. Smart costumes and production design signal a wealth of information about the characters.