Godland is still fresh in my mind. I can still feel the elements of Iceland, the spongy soggy marshland and the driving rain, even though it has been a few days since watching Hlynur Pálmason’s third feature. Witnessing it where it belongs, in the cinema – and in IMAX – made the experience even more sensory and immersive.
Hlynur, who was born in Iceland but now lives in Denmark with his family, has a wonderful way of making you feel those elements in his films – his first feature Winter Brothers, was Danish and focused on a pair of miners, Emil and Johan – Emil was played by Elliott Crosset Hove, who features in Godland. While watching the film you genuinely feel like you are deep in the tunnels and need to clean yourself down of all the muck of the mine, as the plot of an unhinged Emil unfolds.
For his second feature Hlynur returned to his homeland of Iceland to direct A White White Day, with his lead Ingvar Sigurdsson, who was in Trapped and here features in Godland too. The opening of A White White Day shows the construction of a house during the course of an Icelandic year and all its changing seasons.
What is interesting with Godland is that Hlynur brings Danish Elliott Crosset Hove and Icelandic Ingvar Sigurdsson from his previous two features, together in his third. Other recognisable faces are also paired such as the excellent Vic Carmon Stone (Holiday), and Ída Mekkín Hlynsdóttir (A White White Day) – the latter of whom is in fact Hlynur’s daughter and a very special talent.
Godland is a long slow-burn film about a young Danish priest Lucas (Elliott Crosset Hove), sent on a long journey through Iceland’s unforgiving terrain to build a church. Two world’s collide and polar opposites conflict: Denmark and Iceland, two different languages, old and new, faith and hopelessness, the priest and his guide, man and nature, and the beauty and danger of the Icelandic landscape.
Hlynur: I think this film was very much bringing these two worlds together. I had been living between the two countries where I grew up in Iceland then studied in Denmark and had children there before moving back to Iceland. It felt like taking these opposites and putting them together.
It started out in 2013 in a very naïve way – almost putting this Icelandic blue colour against the Danish red, then taking it from there with the weather, the landscape, and also the language. This miscommunication which creates so much misunderstanding – and seeing what happens from that.“
Hlynur explains that the film was inspired by the idea of photos the priest took on his journey being uncovered years later and having to fill in the gaps of what took place between each shot. Lucas carries around a camera with him and we see him take these shots in the film. The style of the film is also shot in a photographic style, with long lingering landscapes and square aspect ratio.
Hlynur: When I started writing the film it was a very stiff and heavy story – I don’t know if I was quite ready for it yet or maybe I was too young. It just wasn’t seeming to come together but then later on I was thinking about – that Lucas had this heavy cross that he had to bring along with him but then I had this epiphany that it wasn’t only the cross he was carrying, but this camera too.“
It all makes for an arduous but visually stunning and arresting experience. Much like Lucas’ journey and experience in the film I imagine.
This idea of the photos in the film breathed a new sense of life into Hlynur’s project which allowed him to begin to imagine these photographs that Lucas’ character takes and the stories that evolve around them.
Hlynur: Suddenly the possibilities became endless and I got so excited working on the project.“
Having had much experience travelling in Iceland myself, what I found particularly great about the locations used in Godland was that they were somewhere completely different than what you would normally expect to see in a feature film that is filmed in Iceland, it seems that Hlynur has embarked on a journey much like his characters and gone into deeper, darker Iceland.
Hlynur: There are these landmark places which many people recognise but we shot between those places and travelling to each one because it made it more mysterious, and strangely familiar despite it being places you haven’t been before. However I didn’t film them because of that; I had filmed them because they were places I had come from, part of my roots, and where I revisit every year.“
Hlynur refers to a couple of scenes that he had started principal filming two years before the full shoot of the film went ahead. Those familiar with his previous work on A White White Day and Nest will certainly know what kind of shots to expect.
The film is shot in a specific way, using a 35mm academy ratio – the images in this article will give you a good idea of what to expect. It is an interesting choice given the landscape that Hylnur is working with, why not use a large, wider lens to capture this stunning scenery?
Hlynur: I had a problem with filming in a wide format, like a super 35mm lens, and I don’t know what it is about the format but I just didn’t have this huge desire to looking into the camera with this frame. I started searching for other aspect ratios that I liked.
I had bought this camera, a long time before we made this film, called a plaubel makina, and I like this type of aspect ratios which had these soft edges on the sides. I felt such a desire to frame and take photos – so I started testing using this format and I just loved it. It was so nice to frame and you could get so close to faces, which was challenge with the other camera.
What also worked well for Hlynur was that this style of filming was similar in a way to his character Lucas using his camera to take photos. The finished product is perhaps one of the most beautiful projections of Iceland you will ever see in the cinema – making those that have never been there want to go, and those that have been want to return.
We turn our attention towards Ingvar Sigurðsson who plays Ragnar in the film and who engages in a bitter feud with the Danish priest. In Hylnur’s previous film, A White White Day, we saw Ingvar’s character having to cope with the death of his wife and the repercussions when he begins to suspect she had had an affair with a local.
A particular scene sees his character snap in such an epic way that you know is going to happen but are never ready for the lengths he goes to when he finally does. It is a moment that is both hiliarious and shocking.
Knowing how Hlynur’s characters can suddenly transform keeps you on the edge of your seat. That is no different watching Godland, waiting for a sudden violent outburst which is sometimes instead some very subtle dark humour.
Hlynur: It is a funny thing when people watch films and they might be very serious films where you shouldn’t laugh but I have laughed so many times on set when I have been working. I enjoy those moments where it is vibrating between whether I should laugh or not.
Godland is very open to different individuals to take their own interpretations of the film – there is no wrong way of experiencing the film and I hope the film is taken that way.“
Godland has its UK cinema release from the 7th April – make sure you see it in the cinema but if you it is not showing locally then check out Curzon Home Cinema
You can also watch his first feature Winter Brothers on Amazon Prime, A White White Day is available on BBC iPlayer, and don’t forget to also check out the director’s award winning short film Nest over on MUBI