Pale Star (4 stars)

Pale Star

EIFF 2016: Graeme Maley storms onto the cinematic scene with an intense, Iceland-set thriller

If the visual and emotional rawness of this Icelandic / Scottish co-production calls to mind the best output of the resolutely no-frills Dogme 95 movement, its charged creepiness shares more with the pared-back horror films currently voguish in America, in which fear and destructiveness are stored more in guilty consciences and damaged souls than in haunted houses. The result is a frequently grim but always compelling genre-bender in which power, narrative momentum and audience sympathy slip unpredictably from one character to another.

Þrúður Vilhjálmsdóttir is an utterly fierce and splendid screen presence as Sólveig, who conceals both herself and a great many secrets in a house far isolated in Iceland’s rocky and desolate southern reaches. No less volcanic than the land around her is Sólveig’s temper, which has been pushed to breaking point before, and is roused again by the arrival of a troubled stranger, Molly (Isabelle Joss). On the run from abusive partner Kurt (Iain Robertson), Molly initially attracts Sólveig’s sympathy; however, matters grow a touch more complicated when Kurt himself arrives and demands the women’s attention.

Working skilfully with a sparse script and a location that feels at once confined and timelessly remote, debut writer-director Graeme Maley (Ayrshire-born but best known for his work in Icelandic theatre) builds a tremendous sense of mystery and foreboding, which is carried through in performances that hum with intensity. With its trim running time and pinpoint-focused story, the film does feel somewhat small, as if its natural home is more at short than feature length – but even if some more sub-plotting might have rounded it out, Pale Star succeeds extremely impressively in holding the attention and keeping the audience guessing. It gives a fully persuasive sense of place, as well, with Arnar Thor Thorisson’s cinematography and John Cobban’s sound design ensuring that we just about feel that harsh Icelandic wind.

Screening on Wed 22 and Thu 23 Jun as part of the Edinburgh International Film Festival 2016. General release TBC.

Pale Star

  • 4 stars
  • 2016
  • Iceland / UK
  • 1h 22min
  • 15
  • Directed by: Graeme Maley
  • Cast: Þrúður Vilhjálmsdóttir, Isabelle Joss, Þröstur Leó Gunnarsson, Iain Robertson, Freyja Björk Guðmundsdóttir

Sólveig (Vilhjálmsdóttir) lives by herself in an isolated house in Iceland; then her solitude is interrupted by Molly (Joss), on the run from her abusive partner. Writer-director Maley tells a focused story and builds a tremendous sense of mystery and foreboding. A grim but compelling debut.