The Tree

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 10 February, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 10 February, 2011, 12:00am

Starring: Charlotte Gainsbourg, Morgana Davies, Marton Csokas
Director: Julie Bertuccelli
Category: IIA

It's interesting how The Tree is being released here on the same day as 127 Hours (see review, page 7), as the films tackle the human struggle against nature in very different ways. Danny Boyle's film places reason at the centre of the battle - the protagonist overcoming psychosis and pain to triumph over the hazards of nature. But Julie Bertuccelli's drama embraces sensibility as a narrative cornerstone, with a tale about a family's emotional investment in a banyan tree that is at once a threat to their existence and a surrogate of a departed member.

The Tree continues Bertuccelli's interest in how individuals - women, mostly - confront the death of a son/husband/father. In her only other feature film to date, 2003's Since Otar Left, three women from three generations of a Georgian family come to terms with the death of the film's unseen titular character. Adapted from a novel and based in a small Australian town, Bertuccelli's new film revolves around the consequences of the death of Peter (Aden Young), who builds houses and moves them across the country but dies of a heart attack early in the film.

What follows is the varied ways in which his surviving kin react to the death. At first sent into a long torpor, his wife, Dawn (Charlotte Gainsbourg, above), picks herself up and undergoes a rebirth thanks to her new-found job and a romance with her employer, the mild-mannered George (Marton Csokas). Her eldest son, Tim (Christian Byers), leaves home for a job under the aegis of his father's business partner. And the second son, Charlie (Gabriel Gotting), hides behind a stoic facade and expresses his grief only when alone, playing his father's guitar.

It's her eight-year-old, Simone (Morgana Davies), who dares to dream. She believes her father hasn't left the family and that his spirit is entrenched within the gigantic Moreton Bay Fig that looms over their home. Dawn's initial wariness about Simone's idea and her attachment to the tree turns to concern when the tree gradually eats into the family's life. Its fast-growing roots block drains and its rotting branches destroy the roof - incidents that swiftly follow Dawn's recovery from mourning and her growing intimacy with George.

The Tree reaches its climax in a duel between Dawn and the tree they love and fear - but ends with hope through a liberation from the past and the prospect of a new life. While the film is largely predictable and filled with explicit symbolism, it offers sturdy portrayals of nuanced characters, with especially powerful turns from Gainsbourg and Davies, and remains beguiling.

The Tree opens today