There is a vein in Australian cinema that might be dated back to Nicolas Roeg’s Walkabout in 1971, which casts the country’s wilderness, and the mysterious powers that it embodies, as a principal actor in a human emotional drama. The Tree, an Australian-French coproduction directed by Julie Bertucelli, is every inch part of this very Australian tradition. Moreover, although the film takes its material from a novel by Australian author Judy Pascoe titled Our Father Who Art in the Tree, it is never subservient to its literary source.
The plot is simple. The O’Neils are a family living happily on their property in the backwoods of Queensland. Husband Peter (Aden Young) is a driver of huge semi-trailers delivering prefabricated houses to isolated towns in the sparsely inhabited interior. Wife Dawn (Charlotte Gainsbourg) stays at home with the four kids. A brisk opening sequence shows a relaxed and loving relationship between husband and wife, and establishes a close bond between Peter and his second child Simone (Morgana Davies). A heart attack takes Peter out of the picture and leaves Dawn utterly devastated and her children struggling to find their own means of coping with their grief.
Simone believes that the spirit of her father speaks through a giant Morton Bay fig tree in their garden, and her mystical bond with the tree even begins to affect Dawn, who has been cast adrift by the loss of her husband.
Reports about the making of the film state that it took two years of location scouting to “cast” the tree, which is given a powerful presence by Nigel Bluck’s widescreen cinematography, looming over the family, sometimes protectively, sometimes threateningly. Its root system, pushed by drought, spreads outward during the course of the film and begins to undermine the house and cause disruption to neighboring properties. The tree is not an easy presence to live with, but this makes it all the more powerful in the lives of the O’Neils.
(Dawn O’Neil), Morgana Davies (Simone O’Neil), Marton Csokas (George Elrick), Aden Young (Peter O’Neil)
It would be conventional for the picture to drift into a psychological or even a supernatural thriller at this point, but Bertucelli firmly rejects this avenue, firmly anchoring the story in minor and not-so-minor trials and tribulations of family life in a harsh rural environment. While a supernatural interpretation is left open, the director refuses to allow the viewer any clear resolution as to where she stands.
Life simply isn’t that easy, she seems to be saying, and the spiritual and mundane intermingle in ways that are not always easy to distinguish or define. Is the whole thing about the tree just a willful child’s fantasy? And if so, can this fantasy manufacture something akin to reality?
Certainly Dawn finds her own solace in the tree after tentatively embracing her daughter’s imaginary world, but this works directly against her equally tentative efforts to get on with life and put sorrow behind her. A brief and difficult relationship springs up between Dawn and George (Marton Csokas), a local contractor. He tries to win Dawn over with practical assistance, and warns her of the danger of the tree, as the root system blocks plumbing and a dead branch falls and knocks in a wall of the house. This brings him into direct conflict with Simone, who sees him as a threat to the memory of her father.
The Tree is a rigorously crafted family drama. Gainsbourg and Davies put in understated but tremendously committed performances as mother and child, bound together by blood and memory. Their demands on life, naturally enough, are vastly different and conflict is inevitable. While Dawn tests the waters with George, Simone takes to living in the tree, talking to its branches and terrifying her mother as she climbs high into its protective canopy. These two central roles are ably supported by other child actors, who make up the rest of the O’Neil household. The well-judged performances, which avoid attempts at the pert or ingratiating, root Simone’s extravagant beliefs in the hopes, dreams and fears of ordinary childhood.