A White, White Day (Hvítur, Hvítur Dagur), 2019, Iceland, directed by Hlynur Pálmason
A meditative, slow-burning film about grief: that doesn’t sound too appealing, does it? But A White, White Day is an exceptionally beautiful, human and satisfying film that is so particular to its location yet so very universal in its themes that I found it engrossing and very moving.
The film is a character study of Ingimundur (portrayed by Ingvar Eggert Sigurðsson in a quietly tortured performance), a middle-aged policeman living in a small coastal village in Iceland. Grieving for his wife who recently died in a car crash when her car plummeted into the ocean, he begins to suspect that she had been having an affair. Although that mystery gives the film its momentum, it’s notable that this narrative thread only beings to unfold around 45 minutes in.
For this is a film not afraid to take its time, to linger and to take thoughtful, expressionistic digressions. Sometimes the camera remains static even once the actors have walked out the room. Or it’s content to watch a boat cross some choppy water for two or three minutes. But director Hlynur Pálmason does this with such innate expressiveness that it never feels dull or contrived. Instead, we get a feeling for this small community, its pace and rhythms, its essence. And with his camera and direction, Pálmason expresses the emotional balance of its protagonist Ingimundur, a man who refuses to outwardly articulate his grief.
The first, elongated scene give a sense of this. A silver car driving down a country road in the drizzle, the sky cloudy and grey, the tarmac glistening and dark, the damp green grass either side. The camera follows behind, it doesn’t let us get close enough to see the driver; we’re a passive observer following the vehicle’s progress, turning corners in the white mist. We view this for almost a full two minutes (it seems even longer), mesmerised, before the car suddenly loses control on a bend, sliding to crash through the barriers to drop out of sight.
This, of course, is the accident that causes the death of Ingimundur’s wife. At first, it seems there was no reason for the film to follow the car for so long, except perhaps to set the mood, but later in the film we realise that this final journey is replayed in Ingimundur’s head, a mental reenactment not a memory. He imagines his wife’s last few minutes, the twists and turns of the familiar road so close to their house. Trying to grasp the moment that took his wife away. The stretch of road, the fatal bend. We return to it from time to time, via multi-monitored cubist silent CCTV footage viewed at the police station or some drenched flowers beside the repaired crash barrier. It resonates for us because we’ve seen the long opening sequence, just as it resonates for Ingimundur.
It’s just one example of how Pálmason’s expressive film brings us into Ingimundur thoughts, his state of being, subtlely, abstractly. Small details become meaningful: a kid’s sci-fi TV programme, a bedtime story, a rock rolling down a hill. In a Q&A for the Edinburgh Film Festival, Pálmason described these moments as branches of a tree. This isn’t a simple linear narrative although it has a story arc. Instead, the film takes excusions along these branches, sometimes going far out to the right or the left of the canopy before we come back to the tree trunk. It’s these extremities that give the film its shape and its richness.
Ingimundur himself is capable and taciturn, although he’s far from, say, the proudly reclusive Bjartur in Halldór Laxness’s wonderful novel ‘Independent People’. Instead, Ingimundur is very much part of the community, he plays football with his friends, he’s a local policeman, a grandfather. But he’s not yet ready to confront or express his grief, he’s evasive and dismissively literal and is even offended when asks if he sometimes cries.
Although he uses his masculinity as a shield, it’s pierced by his relationship with his beloved eight-year-old grandaughter Salka, played by the director’s own daughter Ída Mekkín Hlynsdóttir. She adores Ingimundur and she lifts his spirits, makes the grieving man feel alive. They spend a lot of time together, grandfather providing childcare to a busy mum. Although the film’s direction expresses Ingimundur’s grief, it is Salka who is our eyes and ears, who questions him and at times challenges him. The double-act is warm, compassionate, feels real and is a joy to watch.
I was constantly intrigued, but not by the mystery of the affair. Instead, it was by the teasing fragmentary details that allow the viewers to slowly piece together Ingimundur’s external situation and inward emotional state. Near the start, we see lengthy time-lapse sequence of a barn being converted to a house. Shot from afar, with the passing of months clear from the weather, cold snow and rain, the sequence lasts almost eight minutes without only a single short scene to briefly break it. We realise that this is Ingimunur’s project, to build a home for his daughter’s family, converted from a barn on the farm he inherited. We come to realise this is his form of escapism, almost denial, the distant camera echoing his own remoteness.
Later, he opens a box of his wife’s possessions, objects whose touch and scent only amplify the loss. The last book she read, a garment of clothing, the film again moves from being passive observer to being inside his head as we see a remarkable sequence of still shots, of the objects gradually interspersed with images from the accident: the crash barriers, the crushed windscreen, seaweed around the car wheel. Tentatively confronting his loss. This is exceptional filmmaking.
This is mostly a quiet film, but it builds gradually and persuasively to a set of explosively dramatic sequences that contrast with its initial muted tone. By this time we have come to understand the protagonist so well that we completely understand his actions, even if they seem bewildering and frightening to his innocent grandaughter, it’s a payoff that rewards our investment.
The cinematography and music do much to define the film’s tone. The locations are frequently shrouded in white mists and the colour palette of grey sky and grey waves on the winter’s sea set the mood, as does the soundtrack which features melancholy nordic-sounding music for strings by British composer Edmund Finnis, including his delicate pieces Brother, Elsewhere and Between Rain, all beautiful works that I was pleased to discover through this film.
A White, White Day is a wonderful film. An exquisitely sad contemplation of loss and how we come to terms with it, it’s also a film about catharsis, about life. And Pálmason’s wonderfully expressive, thoughtful and sensitive direction turns this unprepossessing subject matter into a gem of a film.
A White, White Day showed at the 2020 Edinburgh Film Festival on 26th June, and was released in the UK for streaming on 3rd July 2020. While many cinemas are still closed, over 30 screens will open the film from their websites from Friday 3rd July as a “Virtual Cinema Release” and will benefit from share in the revenue.Follow @davefilmblog