The land of fire and ice. Yes, that’s what I thought…a great title for a Game of Thrones novel. I’ve no idea if George R.R. Martin came across this description of Iceland when writing his books but it is the first thing that leapt to mind earlier this year when the British Film Institute published a list of 10 great Icelandic films to follow up from Rams winning a prize at Cannes in 2015. Iceland is a tiny country of fewer than 350,000 people and it punches seriously above its weight. Anyone currently following the Euro 2016 football tournament in France would agree with that wholeheartedly. What follows then is a brief round-up of the very best that Iceland has to offer the worlds of film, television and publishing.
- Trapped – Described by creator and director Baltasar Kormákur as “a mix of Nordic noir and Agatha Christie” Trapped was a massive hit for the BBC earlier this year. There has been a plethora of Nordic noir of late and whilst Trapped pays respectful nods to the genre and gives viewers a liberal sprinkling of expected tropes (brooding landscapes, chunky knitwear and a troubled detective) it also engages fully with the financial crisis of 2008 and it is intensely and uncomfortably claustrophobic. Kormákur explains “I wanted to close people in with a murder, to make the town a ticking clock. And I wanted to remind the audience that we are on the outskirts of the inhabitable world. The weather is one of the ruling factors in Iceland – so I made it a pivotal character.” The outskirts of the inhabitable world. I love that.
- Jar City – Two for the price of one here. Firstly Jar City was a novel, the third installment in Arnaldur Indridason’s novels featuring Detective Erlendur and the first to be translated into English. It was, and is, a huge hit and it won the Scandinavian crime writers’ Glass Key award for best Nordic crime fiction novel in 2002. Four years later Baltasar Kormákur (him again) released a film version which is staggering in its building of mood and suspense, a trademark of Kormákur’s work. Both the film and the novel are top drawer.
- Burial Rites – a 2013 novel from Australian writer Hannah Kent, Burial Rites tells the story of a convicted murderess living out her final months before execution on a farm in northern Iceland in the late 1820s. She was sent to a farm because there were no prisons in Iceland at this time. Kent juxtaposes the harsh Icelandic landscape, fear, suspicion and a shocking revelation with deft hands. The scale of research alone is hugely impressive. Based on a true story about the last female to be executed in Iceland (the axe that was commissioned for the beheading rests in the National Museum in Reykjavik) Burial Rites is a debut novel to die for.
- Rams – Grímur Hákonarson’s 2015 film was awarded the Un Certain Regard award at the Cannes Film Festival and has since won a clutch of other awards from around the world. It tells the story of two brothers, both sheep farmers, who haven’t spoken to each other for forty years. They battle the harsh landscape, petty jealously over a competition and finally a deadly plague which threatens their entire livelihood. Through it all they find a way to come together.
The harshness of the landscape is a theme which runs right through this list and it isn’t hard to see why Iceland is referred to as the land of fire and ice. Kormákur in particular is fond of turning the camera directly onto the landscape, something which comes through starkly in Trapped. Actually this whole post could be about Baltasar Kormákur and his work. If you haven’t seen the works listed above you might know him from the 2012 film The Deep about a capsized fishing boat, or his 2015 film Everest starring the fabulous Robin Wright.
Right now however, Iceland is country very much in demand and it may be about to spoil the Euro 2016 party in a huge way.
France, beware. Winter is coming.