Grief surrounds the O’Neill family after the patriarch (Aden Young) suddenly dies from a heart attack. His wife Dawn (Charlotte Gainsbourg) and four children are left behind in their big house in rural Queensland where their grief takes the usual destructive path. Upon climbing the large tree that is placed alongside their house, daughter Simone (Morgana Davies) discovers that the father’s spirit has been transported to the tree, whereupon his presence continues to exist for the remainder of The Tree.
The tree has an ethereal and other worldly presence that sees a sense of magical realism and fantasy within the film. Members of the family care for the tree in their own way. Both Simone and Dawn communicate with the tree by sitting in it and talking to it, and one of the younger sons tends to it by watering it and nursing its health.
As their lives continue and Dawn gets a job with local plumber George (Marton Csokas) the tree continues its dictating stance and becomes unruly. Nature dominates the ending of the film where a hurricane grips the town. The traditional notion of the Australian land being untameable and dangerous is seen to, but in a different light.
Adapted from the Australian novel Our Father Who Art in the Tree by Judy Pascoe and an original screenplay by Elizabeth J. Mars, The Tree is a warm story with elements of magical realism that help elevate it from the standard grieving family drama. A family’s grieving process has been the subject of a few recent Australian dramas with an imported international star in the leading role. Most recently The Boys are Back with Clive Owen and Burning Man with Matthew Goode surround this idea.
Charlotte Gainsbourg is particularly lovely as Dawn, however there seems to be something lacking in the development of her character. Though she is dedicated enough screen time, there is room for much more development. Perhaps the intention was to leave her as an enigma. After all, the character is finding herself again after a life changing event. The grief takes her to a place she was not familiar with and the rest of the film sees her trying to get back to normal.
The supporting cast is led well by Marton Csokas, Aden Young and some brief appearances from the terrific Gillian Jones as a supportive friend and Penne Hackforth-Jones as a meddling neighbour. Morgana Davies makes a strong screen debut, and her subtle talents are reminiscent of a young and innocent Drew Barrymore. Musical contributions by Grégoire Hetzel add a heightened tenderness to an already tender story. The last song in particularly is quite moving.
A co-production between French producer Yael Fogiel and Australian producer Sue Taylor, The Tree has an aesthetic look that is slightly European. While quintessentially Australian, the look is determined by the richness of the hues displayed. The tree itself, located in Boondah, Queensland, is one of the film’s biggest characters and after intense searching, the filmmakers did find the perfect tree. Writer/director Julie Bertuccelli’ s second feature is a warm and moving spiritual film.
The Tree was released in Australia on September 30, 2010 through Transmission Films.