‘The Tree’ – Movie Review

Dawn and Peter O’Neil live with their kids in rural Queensland in a ramshackle house shaded by a gigantic Moreton Bay fig tree (which took the filmmakers weeks to find, apparently…it’s really quite magnificent). Clearly, the family are not materially wealthy, but life is good. Then tragedy strikes: Peter has a fatal heart attack. The film (a French-Australian co-production) focuses on Dawn and 8-year-old daughter, Simone, as they struggle to come to terms with their loss.

Simone finds solace in the heart of the tree – a junction of trunk and branches, where she sets up a shrine to her father. She fancies she can hear him talking to her through the rustling leaves, and in time entrusts her mother with her secret. Dawn, too, comes to associate her late husband with the tree, which sends its hyper-fast-growing roots out to embrace the house, as if in response.

The tree’s benevolent mood takes a sinister turn when a relationship develops between Dawn and a local plumber: a massive branch breaks off, crashing through the roof and coming to rest across her bed! Lotsa symbolism happening here…and there’s more. Frankly, it’s all a bit laboured by the end of the movie.

Obviously, then, this film operates partly on a lyrical level, but there is a problem here – a clash, rather than a happy confluence, between poetry and realism. I haven’t read the book on which the movie was based (Judy Pascoe’s Our Father Who Art In The Tree), but my sense was that some of the ‘literary’ aspects that jarred on me – and that might have worked in a literary context – were relics from the novel that did not adapt well to film mode.

Further, there were some logic issues that were too in-yer-face to overlook. For example, the O’Neil shack is in the middle of a field overlooking a sweeping rural vista, yet there is a neighbouring house right next to them – the only one for miles around! Non non! Not in Australie! One wonders why the Aussie crew members did not point this out as implausible to the French component of the filmmaking team.

Spoiler-consciousness precludes me from expanding, but the tree, too, is the subject of some dodgy treatment in the script that cannot be written off as poetic license. More research required, folks – or less lyricism!

And while on the script – oh lawd, some of the dialogue was dire, particularly in exchanges between Simone and a friend of the same age. Referring to her efforts to deal with her father’s death, Simone comes out with “I think you can choose to be happy or sad, and I chose to be happy.” Puh-LEASE! Self-development course cliches from the mouths of babes?

For all this, the movie has some saving graces. There are some exquisite moments – Simone dabbing the healing sap of the tree on her barked knee, for example. The family members’ mourning processes are generally well negotiated, and occasionally moving, as is the sense of renewal and the indomitable spirit of life as they come to terms with their bereavement.

All the performances are good, although 7 year old Morgana Davies steals the show as Simone. Endearing and talented as she surely is, I wouldn’t rank her performance up with the very best I’ve seen from child actors (eg: sisters Sarah and Emma Bolger in In America), but I wonder whether the long standing ovation The Tree received as the closing film at Cannes earlier this year wasn’t largely for her performance. If not, the reason for the rapturous response eludes me.

For other Boomtown Rap movie reviews, see Movie Review Archives

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