A poetic tale of loss and starting over, Julie Bertuccelli’s The Tree centers on its title character: an enormous, sprawling fig tree that stands by the home of the O’Neil family in the Australian countryside.
The tree, with its numerous branches and twisty roots that seem to be bubbling up from the earth, seems to watch over the house and the people in it — and, early in the movie, they’re in need of its comforting. Peter (Aden Young), husband of Dawn (Charlotte Gainsbourg) and father of four children, is suddenly killed in a car accident and the family is adrift, so in shock they hardly know how to mourn.
From its terribly sad beginning, The Tree (adapted from a 2002 Australian novel by Judy Pascoe) floats gently into magic realism. Eight-year-old Simone (Morgana Davies, in an enchanting performance) is certain that she can hear her father whispering to her from the tree; Dawn starts sitting in the tree at night, talking to her husband. But the tree’s presence eventually becomes less benign. A branch crashes into the house; a neighbor protests its growth. (“It’s not a tree, it’s an octopus!” she says.) Dawn meets a charming plumber (Marton Csokas) and begins to let go of the past. Soon only Simone guards the tree, determined that it not be cut down, clinging to hold on to something that’s destined to slip away.
Beautifully filmed in the harsh, dry landscape, The Tree is often mesmerizing, from the images of lacy green vines as they circle the house to the expression of quiet calm on Gainsbourg’s face as Dawn realizes that she can and will go on. The sky seems endless in this part of the world: gray-glazed in stormy weather, shrouded in cobwebby mist on early mornings, majestically shimmering in summer twilight. A family is broken, like a branch — but slowly the rough edges soften, becoming whole again.