The tree that the film takes its title from is a giant Moreton Bay Fig tree, situated next to the family home on the edge of a small Australian country town where Dawn O’Neil (Charlotte Gainsbourg) lives with her husband Paul (Aden Young) and their four children. After Paul dies in an accident the tree starts to be regarded with increasing significance by Dawn and her children, especially when 8-year-old Simone starts claiming that it has become possessed by her dead father.
There are many similarities between The Tree and Scott Hick’s The Boys Are Back, released less than twelve months ago. Both films are novel adaptations about Europeans living in regional Australia who have suddenly become single parents, due to the death of a spouse, and must now learn to continue on with life and look after their children the best that they can. While The Boys Are Back unravelled through a reasonably safe and traditional narrative structure, The Tree adopts a slower and more character driven pace where narrative drive is secondary to character impressions. It is part family drama and part modern fairy tale.
With a tree featuring so significantly in the film literally and metaphorically it was essential for the Australian landscape to be brought alive visually and the use of natural light in the cinematography does this brilliantly. However, despite the strong Magical Realist role that nature plays in The Tree, the film maintains a convincing grounding in reality allowing the audience to share Dawn’s willingness to go along with Simone’s belief that her father speaks to her through the tree’s branches. The result is a film that instead of being melancholic and bleak is instead serene, warm and inviting.
Charlotte Gainsbourg does a marvellous job presenting Dawn as a grieving wife and a caring mother but also a woman not ready to give up on life and love. Gainsbourg recently also played a grieving woman in Antichrist, another film where nature intrudes into the lives of the characters, but her performance in The Tree and the tone of the film itself could not be more different. Marton Csokas is also wonderful as the local plumber who becomes involved with Dawn but the real acting revelation in The Tree is newcomer Morgana Davies as Simone. All the child actors are excellent but Davies delivers a truly powerful and assured performance that is rarely seen in such young actors.
The combination of the stunning cinematography, restrained Magical Realism, strong acting and character driven narrative makes The Tree a mesmerising experience. It is a mediative and tranquil film that gently unfolds to deliver a moving examination of grief and emotional catharsis. Yet, its light and slightly whimsical tone makes it a film about celebrating life, connecting to nature and loved ones, and looking to the future.