Lamb delivers a slice of Icelandic-weird that tips into unabashed folk-horror

Valdimar Jóhannsson’s feature debut begins as a lonely depiction of life in rural Iceland, but the arrival of baby Ada, a lamb/human hybrid, turns this sinister film on its bestial head.

Noomi Rapace as Maria in Lamb (2021)
Noomi Rapace as Maria in Lamb (2021)Lilja Jóns

Lamb is in UK cinemas from December 10. 

With its animal reaction shots and semi-documentary scenes of farm life, Valdimar Jóhannsson’s directing debut at first seems poised to take its place amid recent animal observation pieces such as Gunda (2020) or Cow (reviewed on page 122), or as quasi-realist fiction in the style of Rams (2015). But subsequent events recast the opening shots of horses and sheep unsettled by an unseen presence in a more sinister light, and reposition the film as a prime slice of Scandi-weird to rank alongside Ali Abbasi’s Border (2018).

Lamb, like Border, is a slow burner, relying on Eli Arenson’s misty landscape cinematography (J.M.W. Turner is just one of the many painters cited in the credits as inspiration), Tóti Gudnason’s spectral ambient score, and flawless low-key work from its two leading actors, before the first jaw-dropping reveal at the 37-minute mark shifts it into uncanny territory. When a ewe gives birth to a lamb/human hybrid, the child is taken in by farmers Maria and Ingvar (Noomi Rapace and Hilmir Snaer Gudnason) and given the name Ada. With her human child’s body melded to a lamb’s head and legs, Ada brings to mind the less cuddly hybrids of The Fly (1958) or Splice (2009) though, somewhat disconcertingly, the character she resembles most is the half-boy/half-mouse Stuart Little (1999), and Maria and Ingvar’s lack of curiosity about their adopted child’s genealogy resembles that of Stuart’s human parents. But needless to say, Lamb is not a family-friendly comedy. Maria’s reaction when Ada’s ewe mother refuses to abandon its offspring is to lead the animal away and shoot it.

This is not to say there is no deadpan humour. Maria and Ingvar’s unquestioning acceptance of their odd surrogate child (shades also of Jan Svankmajer’s 2000 black comedy Little Otik) is brought into focus when Ingvar’s feckless brother Pétur turns up, sees Ada, by now dressed in human clothes, and asks what we’ve all been thinking: “What the fuck is this?” In the end though, even he is won over by Ada’s cuteness.

Lamb’s parsimony with its plotting extends to the couple’s bereavement; over an hour goes by before we glimpse their daughter’s grave and realise the depth of their emotional attachment to the hybrid Ada, though the actors have already conveyed all that was necessary about what has been missing from their lives. But the film ends with another astonishing reveal, one that tips it into unabashed folk-horror, leaving the shellshocked viewer questioning the very nature of, well, nature.