Julie Bertuccelli’s soft semi-spiritual family drama is slow, overlong and short on emotion.
Charlotte Gainsbourg is screaming "SIMONE!", and because it’s Charlotte Gainsbourg screaming "SIMONE!", and Simone is her daughter, you expect Simone (Morgana Davies) to be in trouble. Simone’s fine. The 10-year-old is sat in a tree, talking to the ghost of her recently deceased father.
The death wasn’t violent (heart attack, driving, crashed into the tree) and the ghost isn’t spooky (he may even not exist) but as it’s Gainsbourg doing the screaming, something strange must be going on.
In fact, nothing odd is happening at all. And that’s the weirdest, weakest thing about Julie Bertuccelli’s soft semi-spiritual family drama. Gainsbourg – still fresh in the mind as the grieving, psychotic 'She' of Lars von Trier’s Antichrist – is really hard to accept as heart-broken Dawn O’Neil, a French émigré in rural Australia left to look after her four kids in the aftermath of her husband’s death.
She’s perfectly good in the role, but she’s detached from it, too. With the death of Marton Csokas’ father figure, it’s as if we’ve lost two central characters in one blow, and it leaves the film hollow.
Grief and reconciliation in the Australian outback made for fertile cinematic ground in Scott Hicks’ 2009 The Boys Are Back, in which Clive Owen starred as a young-ish dad left to look after his kids when their mother dies. Both films suggest that, for the immigrant, there is something about the colloquial nature of the country that makes it hard for an outsider to survive. Dawn and Owen’s Joe are pitied – but not helped – by their neighbours, but while Joe’s rage against their condescension spurs The Boys Are Back onwards, Dawn’s drift into spaced-out depression drags The Tree down.
Perhaps it’s ungracious to criticise an actor for failing to play against (recently acquired) type, but The Tree is essentially a two-hander (between Dawn and Simone) with a hand missing. The supporting roles – a mute younger brother, an older sibling who wants to escape rural family life, the dishy plumber who offers Dawn a reprieve from her grief – need something to play against. Davies – excellent, but too young to carry a movie – can’t provide that on her own.
The premise is not promising.
Morgana Davies is great. Charlotte Gainsbourg is good, but very oddly cast.
Slow, overlong and short on emotion.