Julie Bertuccelli’s The Tree is a warm, modern-day fable that avoids schmaltzy sentimentality. It tells the story of a young girl dealing with the untimely passing of her father, only to become convinced that his spirit has inhabited the giant tree in her backyard. It deals with death and grief not with rose-tinted glasses, but with painful clarity. It’s sad, and sweet, and funny, but never sappy (despite the omnipresence of its titular sap-filled figure). The closest comparison I can think of is Steven Spielberg’s E.T., or even better, Close Encounters of the Third Kind – right down to its cathartic, challenging ending.
Aden Young stars as Peter O’Neil, the kindly father of three boys and a young girl, and husband of Dawn (Charlotte Gainsbourg). We’re briefly introduced to him, before he’s taken away in a moment of cosmic incredulity. He suffers a fatal, unprovoked heart attack while driving home, and his car rolls into the enormous Poinciana tree in his family’s front yard. The O’Neils are instantly fractured; eldest boy Tim (Christian Byers) struggles with being the new man of the house; youngest boy Charlie (Gabriel Gotting) refuses to speak; and Dawn turns to local plumber (Marton Csokas) for comfort. But 8-year-old Simone (Morgana Davies) “chooses happiness”, and begins to spend her days with the eponymous tree, through which she believes her father is watching over their family from beyond the grave. Although the tree protects them at first, it soon becomes apparent that its roots are too deeply embedded in their lives, and it soon begins to strangle the family, and stifle any opportunity of moving on.
The Tree is based upon Judy Pascoe’s 2002 novel Our Father Who Art in The Tree, but frankly, this material was made for a cinematic translation. Bertuccelli brings the Poinciana to life as a fully fledged character (and occasionally terrifying presence); it’s one of the great cinematic highlights of the year. The tree seems to breathe and moan in unison with the actions of the O’Neils; it dictates the mood of the film, swinging effortlessly from comforting to menacing. The Poinciana is not the only actor to give a memorable performance. Charlotte Gainsbourg offers the other side of the coin to her character in Antichrist (also a mother in mourning who embraced nature, yet subsequently succumbed to its evil). Meanwhile, young Morgana Davies is both lovably naïve and frustratingly naughty – so, something like a real child.
Most unique about the film is the way in which it depicts the mourning process, and seems to propose that recollections of the dead can ruin the lives of the living. Peter O’Neil’s family will remember him as a flawless husband and father, and that is both a blessing and a curse. The roots of his tree permeate their home, and his family happily allows it, even though it’s essentially entombing them in the past. The film asks us to let go of our possessions, our history and our loved ones. But it never presumes that we could abandon our memories. Life doesn’t just go on; it hurtles forward. It’s an ongoing struggle to find the balance between what came before and what’s still to come. The Tree is about acknowledging the past, accepting the fantastical, and learning to love harsh reality instead.
The Tree opens across Australia September 30, 2010.