‘Lamb’ – Surreal Folk Tale Of Surrogate Sheep Ruminates On Loneliness, Loss and Maternal Grief: Review

‘Lamb’ – Surreal Folk Tale Of Surrogate Sheep Ruminates On Loneliness, Loss and Maternal Grief

In rural Iceland, farmers Maria and Ingvar embark on a bizarre scheme of ovine adoption. Naming the fostered lamb Ada, they begin to raise her as their own woolly progeny. Mother Nature, however, has other ideas… 


Do farmers dream of anthropomorphic sheep? Ostensibly an odd question, but one that is perhaps at the heart of Valdimar Johansson’s audaciously absurd directorial debut, Lamb. This Icelandic production is that rare breed of movie which is genuinely hard to place into a recognisable genre or category. If you’ve seen the trailer, you may be expecting some kind of freaky, atmospheric folk-horror in the vein of previous A24 releases such as The Witch (2015) or Midsommar (2019). And to some extent you’d be right: this film is definitely freaky.

Co-written by Johansson and frequent Björk collaborator Sjón, Lamb exudes a strange, disquieting eeriness that will unnerve even the most seasoned horror vets. To confine the film to this label would be a mistake however; there’s far too many laugh-out-loud moments for it to work as a straight chiller-thriller, and the marked absence of jump scares means Lamb isn’t playing for cheap physiological jolts either. What Johannsson and co. have created here is a work that refuses to be herded into the restrictive enclosure of generic convention. Instead, fright, humour and domestic drama are hybridised to spawn a uniquely disturbing pastoral fable – a rare breed of Lamb indeed.

Executive producer Noomi Rapace stars as Maria, a sheep farmer out on the scenic pastures of Northern Iceland. A somewhat forlorn character, her and husband Ingvar (Hilmir Snær Guðnason) appear to be entirely isolated from the regular world, kept company only by looming mountains and the shrill bleats of their flock. One day they make a peculiar discovery in their barn: a baby lamb has been born with a freakish physical abnormality. Johannsson withholds the specificities of this deformity for nearly 40 minutes, by which time the couple have brought the young ewe into their home, naming her Ada after their recently deceased daughter.

From wearing knitted jumpers to pouring herself Cheerios, Ada is your typical half-sheep, half-human lamb-child. This interspecies family unit begins to happily embrace life on the farm together; Ingvar shows Ada how to fix a tractor, and the dwindling passion in the couple’s marriage appears to have been reinvigorated. When Ingvar’s shady brother Petur (Björn Hlynur Haraldsson) unexpectedly turns up however, this bizarre imitation of domestic bliss begins to rapidly unravel. And, with Ada’s actual mother and father lurking in the misty Icelandic grasslands, it is only so long before the forces of Nature also turn against this blasphemous unison of man and animal.

The only certain thing about Lamb is that it is relentlessly uncertain, thus providing it with a thematic richness that a more lucid work may lack.

On paper, Lamb looks ridiculous. At times, it is ridiculous. You can’t see a CGI lamb don a small winter coat whilst making toast and think otherwise. Fortunately, Johansson treats the film’s surreal central conceit with a degree of earnest self-awareness that prevents it crossing the boundary from compellingly absurd to just plain silly. This is exemplified in the arrival of an outsider, Petur, into the insane situation Maria and Ingvar have become embroiled in. “What the fuck is this?” he exclaims, staring at the chimerical being standing upright in his brother’s kitchen; we’re not sure either, Petur. 

Lamb’s bonkers premise is also counterpointed to great effect by Johansson’s rigorous employment of a stark, minimalist visual style. Hungarian slow cinema maestro Bela Tarr playing the role of executive producer may tell you all you need to know about the consistent use of meditative, tableaux-like long takes throughout the film. By eschewing the centrality of explicit action in these shots, Johannsson instead foregrounds the subtle nuances of tone and atmosphere, gradually layering image after image to produce a consistently unsettling visual experience. Furthermore, Lamb’s dialogue is as sparse as the bare agricultural landscape that Maria and Ingvar inhabit. You do really get the sense that whilst the farming couple have nothing left to say to each other, there is simultaneously an awful lot that is not being said. 

In many ways, this penchant for the unspoken and unexplained is the film’s greatest strength. Lamb is unapologetically elliptical, and Johannsson’s debut is all the better for it. At no point, for example, does he attempt to delineate the circumstances by which the couple lost their first (human) daughter. All the information the viewer is provided with is a short, dreamlike sequence in which Maria and her foster child see a gravestone marked ‘Ada’ before walking ethereally off-screen. Petur’s relationship with the couple is similarly murky, and his possible affair with Maria is only implied rather than directly stated. This constant ambiguity makes the film rewarding both on the first and second viewing, allowing the spectator to chart their own route through the uncertainties and elisions of its narrative. 

In fact, the only certain thing about Lamb is that it is relentlessly uncertain, thus providing it with a thematic richness that a more lucid work may lack. The fantastical externalisation of Maria’s inner maternal grief is perhaps the clearest line Johannsson draws for us, but there are certainly several other readings and interpretations gestating in the film’s subtext. Religious overtones, for example, are prominent, and it could just well be that Lamb is the weirdest Nativity movie since… well, ever. This potential space for critical debate is a testament to the courageousness and originality of Johannsson’s work, and an indicator that it has all the makings of a cult classic. 

The converse of this, of course, is that when Lamb eventually begins to reveal itself, the mystique of its narrative and thematic equivocality is somewhat lost. This comes in the film’s final third, when the escalating dread and tension must necessarily culminate in some sort of conclusive denouement. Whilst the ending is not entirely unsatisfying, it feels far too tangible when compared with the elusive, foggy allure of the earlier sequences. As the most truly disturbing films know, the monsters within our mind’s eye are scarier than anything that CGI or practical effects can produce on screen. Perhaps if Johannsson had taken just one step further into the disturbing, uncertain haze, then this genre-bending Lamb dish would have earned itself that final Michelin star. 

The Verdict

Unapologetically ambiguous and genuinely unique, Lamb is nothing if not memorable. Johannsson’s courageous choice of subject matter and visually accomplished execution mark him out as a talent to watch out for. Easily deserving of two, maybe three, viewings. Seek it out if you can.

Words by Will Jones

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