The Tree, a French / Australian co-production, tells the story of a family coming to terms with its grief, set in a rural Queensland town.
Husband Peter suffers a heart attack on his way home from a job behind the wheel of his ute. This occurs at the top of the drive of his family home which he shares with his wife Dawn (Charlotte Gainsbourg) and four children. The ute gently rolls down the hill and comes to rest by the trunk of the enormous Moreton Bay Fig that towers over the house.
The tree in a way is the spiritual centre for the family. The children play in it, it provides shade from the heat and is a literal figure of strength holding the family together.
With the death of Peter, the family must re-adjust the living patterns without him. It is 8 year old Simone (Morgana Davies) who thinks that if she listens very closely, she can hear her father through the tree; the wind blowing through the branches, the dappled sunlight through the leaves and the ants ferrying messages from top to bottom. She creates a small shrine to her father amongst its branches with key mementos such as a picture of him and his watch hanging from a twig.
Simone convinces her mother that he is there and Dawn also finds peace amongst the boughs.
But the tree is not healthy and is becoming a menace. The roots stretch metres and metres from the trunk and disrupt the fence-line, cause a rent in the watertank and crack the sewerage pipes. In one of the funnier scenes, green tree frogs have found the opening and appear in the toilet bowl. No matter how much the children flush, the frogs won’t go down, masters of sticking tightly in damp conditions.
When Dawn meets plumber George (Marton Csokas) and interest stirs, the tree appears to have an opinion of its own. A silent reproach and then a clawing at the window by its branches suggest it is calling out to Dawn. A branch falls and crashes into Dawn’s bedroom and when Dawn denies any culpability, Simone’s 8 year old indignation, “Oh really!” is priceless.
Perhaps it is a reflection of how well this film is made that according to producer Sue Taylor, Australian audiences have reacted to this film by claiming how ‘European’ it is (the strong emotional, sometimes claustrophobic pull of the family). To French audiences however, how Australian the film looks. The location of the film and the space in which it occupies is important to the fabric of the film. The Moreton Bay Fig tree is an actual tree; the family home was ‘built’ around it to complete the film set. The country fields, distant horizon and temperate climate give the film that distinctly Australian look and feel.
Gainsbourg, as Dawn, is a very capable actress but I didn’t fully emotionally engage with her as widower. The timeline of the film, which covered the best part of a year, seemed to progress Dawn’s emotional arc succinctly : from adoring wife to listless grief to renewal.
The children each played their part well and gave the film its heart. Simone’s older brothers react to their father’s passing in different ways. Tim as eldest child feels the burden by leaving school and beginning a trade to aide his mother; Lou a practically minded fellow, waters and feeds the tree to keep it healthy and packs the emergency rations box prior to the cyclone which eventually hits.
Good, without soaring to great, 3 out of 5.