With remarkable simplicity, but also depth and sensibility, Heartstone (Hjartasteinn) is an impeccably executed debut feature from the talented Guðmundur Arnar Guðmundsson and a must-see for anyone, gay or straight, that has ever known or experienced intolerance and the struggle of riotous adolescent years. The film’s daring 129-minute length might test your patience somewhat, but it will unimpeachably leave a lasting impression on you – and perhaps even prompt you to give it a second viewing.
Guðmundsson’s Icelandic motion picture is the type of film that has you enthralled from start to finish by fully immersing you into the story and polished cinematography. Visually and mentally stimulating, Heartstone skilfully brings together a flawless combination of emotional turmoil, transformative experiences and picturesque setting which leaves the viewer deeply entrenched in the chaotic ordeal of discovering and dealing with one’s own sexuality. The erratic coming-of-age plot, centred on the angsty relationship between two teenagers, is cleverly framed within the backdrop of Iceland’s marshy and dreamlike topography, showcasing the raw brutality and coarseness of living in a secluded fishing village.
Þór (Baldur Einarsson) and Kristján (Blær Hinriksson) are two youngsters who, despite having girls their own age interested in them, seem to develop a strangely powerful attraction for one another. The teenagers are first seen culling fish and slamming their heads on dry land. However, cruelty is not only a necessity for survival in the small village, but also a generally accepted way of dealing with homosexuality on a social level. As such, homophobia is unsurprisingly widespread – particularly in Kristján’s family. The boy’s father, Sigurður (Sveinn Ólafur Gunnarsson), is an abusive alcoholic whose hatred towards gay people is made clear prematurely and deeply affects Kristján. Moreover, when Þór starts showing interest in a girl named Beta (Diljá Valsdóttir), the young man is forced to find some way of vocalizing his feelings towards his friend. The heated and emotionally-charged interactions which ensue are entrancing, insightful and most likely highly relatable for anyone who has ever experienced the dread, abashment and perplexity that come with being a confused teenager.
Heartstone‘s (Hjartasteinn) scenery is sharp and mesmerising, but it is the heart-stirring and uniquely executed performances, specifically those of Einarsson and Hinriksson, that really advance the film and admirably carry the burden of conveying the story’s depth and subtlety to the viewer. Inchoate love is not necessarily a commonly explored theme on the big screen, but it definitely makes up quite a significant part of queer cinema. Moreover, most LGBT individuals have, at some point or another, gone through the gut-wrenching feeling of unrequited love or have had to face dismissal and repudiation. Guðmundsson’s drama boldly tackles such topics in a jarring, and yet demure manner, while also insisting on the procrustean limitations of community and its societal expulsion of anyone who does not adhere to what is considered “normal”.
Sexual confusion, rejection and their psychological implications are thoroughly scrutinized – which does add a languorous, perhaps irksome for some, element to the film. However, the slow-burning nature of the storyline does not take away from its merit and wholesome proclivity for excellence and genuineness. Although Þór seems to be the most affected of the two characters, as well as the one undergoing a more powerful and critical transformation, Guðmundsson does seem to focus a great deal on Kristján. Albeit an intriguing and far-reaching account, shedding more light on Thor’s struggle of surrendering to and finally fully accepting his sexuality would also have been vastly appreciated.
To a great extent, the landscape, performances and plot are Heartstone‘s (Hjartasteinn) most redeemable qualities, and their unsullied execution overshadow any real shortcoming the motion picture may have. Ultimately, Guðmundsson brings to life a sympathetic journey of self-discovery and young love in a forbidding, hostile environment, while also managing to convey the bittersweet bearing of separation and the tragic aftermath of living in an exclusionary society that subjugates sexual liberation and condemns those who seek it.
All pictures reproduced courtesy of Breaking Glass Pictures