Film Review: The Juniper Tree

Nietzchka Keene’s 1990 debut The Juniper Tree is an atmospheric fantasy. Keene builds the film incredibly well to its dark conclusion. 

After their mother is killed for witchcraft, sisters Katla and Margit go searching for a new home. Katla entrances a shepherd and marries him, but his son is not keen on his new stepmother…

Based on the Brothers Grimm fairy tale, The Juniper Tree is a strange and sometimes macabre fantasy. The film is set in medieval Iceland; the landscape very much becomes part of the story. 

The narrative unfolds at an appropriate pace, with the two main strands developing in tandem. The discord between sister and Jónas grows, just as Margit’s visions become more prominent. The two strands intersect frequently, with Jónas’ dislike of his stepmother a cause of friction in his friendship with Margit. 

There is an otherworldly atmosphere to The Juniper Tree, which writer-director Nietzchka Keene has wonderfully generated. The isolation of the setting feeds into this. It is further emphasised by Keene’s choice of direction, and the frequent storytelling that occurs in the film. Witchcraft is at the centre of The Juniper Tree, yet the film is more nuanced than a persecuted women trope. There is a belief in the supernatural which effects all the characters. It is only in the final segment that the film takes a truly macabre turn, harking back to the roots of the fairytale. 

This 2019 restoration exhibits the beauty of Keene’s film. Shot in black and white, there are some really striking images in the film. Keene and cinematographer Randy Sellars use light and shadow in an effective manner. Some of the images have a photographic quality. The score In her first role, Björk is impressive. She has an innocence that imbues her character. Bryndis Petra Bragadóttir and Geirlaug Sunna Þormar are also decent. 

The Juniper Tree is a distinctive fantasy. Hopefully this recent restoration will reach the wider audience the film deserves.

The Juniper Tree is being screened as part of the Treasures programme at the BFI London Film Festival in October 2019. 

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