When a beloved life topples
By Michael O'Sullivan
Friday, Jul 22, 2011
A case study in mourning, "The Tree" more or less follows psychiatrist Elisabeth Kubler-Ross's five stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. But its story takes a path that both a poet and an arborist could love. The central metaphor - a massive, centuries-old fig tree, believed by a little girl to harbor the spirit of her dead father - is a tidy one. At first, the tree is a comfort, only later becoming troublesome as its ancient, overspreading branches and choking roots begin to threaten the girl's house and family.
In the hands of writer-director Julie Bertuccelli, adapting Judy Pascoe's 2002 novel "Our Father Who Art in the Tree," the movie is less heavy-handed than it sounds.
That's largely thanks to graceful performances all around by the members of the talented ensemble cast. It's led by young Morgana Davies as Simone, whose way of dealing with the loss of her daddy is to imagine that his soul has migrated into a tree in the yard of her rural Australian home, and Charlotte Gainsbourg as the widowed mother struggling to raise a headstrong daughter and three boys.
Any of those characters could be presented as stereotypes. The brothers include a toddler whose grief seems to have rendered him mute (Gabriel Gotting); a borderline surly teen who has started sneaking his distracted mom's booze (Christian Byers); and a sensitive middle son caught between coddled babyhood and rebellious adolescence (Tom Russell). But all three give full flesh to their characters, breathing life - and nuance - into their parts.
Gainsbourg ("Antichrist," "21 Grams"), who always seems a little sad no matter whom she's playing, is the perfect actress to play Dawn. Moving through depression and tantrums to a brief, tender romance with George (Marton Csokas), a handsome plumber who gives her a job, she offers up a complex, if familiar, portrait of the way a grown-up copes with loss.
What's more interesting to the filmmaker - and to us - is the way Simone handles death.
Here's where the tree comes in.
After Simone converts its branches into a shrine of sorts - decorating it with her father's watch and engaging in one-sided conversations with it - the tree starts to becomes a burden, as well as a pretty potent metaphor. One night a large branch falls off, crushing part of the house (and, very nearly, Dawn, in her bed). Then the family discovers that the root system is ruining their home's plumbing, along with its foundation.
"Can't you see it's destroying the house?" asks George. The "it," of course, being not just the tree but the fact that each member of the family, in his or her own way, has not yet been able to let go of something. Simone, who was with her father when he died and who was his favorite, is holding on the hardest. When it becomes obvious that the tree has to go - along with the past - she resists.
It's not exactly subtle. But it works. Mostly, it's Gainsbourg and Davies who make it so, by finding new, convincing ways to deliver the message that unhappiness - and even happiness - is a choice. That makes "The Tree" feel very, very real and rooted.
Contains obscenity, brief sensuality, underage drinking and a scary storm.