Undercurrent -- Film Review

Icelandic fishing-trawler drama makes uneven transition from stage to screen.

REYKJAVIK — A reminder that not all Icelandic exports are as unwelcome as volcano ash and banking meltdowns, the gritty fishing-boat chronicle "Undercurrent" is an intriguing if slightly underwhelming delve into the tough working lives of its characters.

Based on a 2004 play, which had a measure of international exposure and success, the film is a small-scale commercial prospect in Nordic/Scandinavian territories and will be of interest to festivals farther afield. 

Marketing-wise, the presence of established Icelandic actors Ingvar E Sigurdsson and Bjorn Hlynur Haraldsson in prominent roles will help. The duo teamed up on the nation's biggest arthouse breakout of recent years, Baltasar Kormakur's Jar City (2007), and both are members of the well-respected Vestpurport theater company which showcased Jon Atli Jonasson's original play. 

Here Sigurdsson is Anton, the taciturn, weather-beaten captain of a "rust-bucket" fishing trawler that operates in the stormy waters off the coast. Haraldsson is Logi, an experienced crew-member with a hair-trigger temper. Director Arni Asgeirsson pays close attention to the nuts and bolts of life under conditions that are described as "hell on earth ... 16 hours shifts and hard work."

Asgeirsson, his cinematographer Magni Agustsson and editor Valdis Oskarsdottir (veteran of Denmark's Dogme movement and Oscar-nominated for Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind) evoke the volatile but functional sense of community that has built up over the months and years among these men.

As the film begins, this atmosphere has been disrupted by the fact that one of the longest-serving trawlermen has committed suicide after becoming mentally unstable. Further upheavals are provided by the arrival of Anton's cash-strapped sister Drifa (Nina Dogg Filippusdottir) as an ad-hoc replacement for the deceased fellow.

"No room for a woman," someone grumbles, but soon various problems — both external (lousy weather, accidents) and internal (further mental issues among the crew) — conspire to bring Anton and company, who like so many of their countrymen are facing tough economic prospects, to the verge of disaster. A "perfect storm," indeed, though "Undercurrent" avoids anything resembling Hollywood slickness and favors a downbeat, documentary-style approach that puts the emphasis on dour authenticity.

Appropriately enough for this Polish co-production, there are touches of Joseph Conrad in the set-up and development of the story, while viewers familiar with the low-budget British movie In Fading Light (1989), which similarly examined the impact of a female presence among grizzled fishermen, may experience deja vu at certain moments.

Performances are solidly convincing, with the charismatic Haraldsson a consistent scene-stealer as the glowering, brooding Logi, an Evangelical Christian who, as we see in an incongruously violent scene early on, has a very un-Christ-like propensity for sudden bloodshed.

Asgeirsson has a strong feel for the brackish claustrophobia of fishing work, and his screenplay, co-written by the director with Otto Geir Borg, has a welcome streak of flinty humor that stops proceedings from becoming excessively grim. It’s a shame then that the picture loses its way in a final act that feels rushed and underdeveloped on its way to an over-abrupt climax.

Venue: Reykjavik International Film Festival
Production companies: Zik Zak, Reykjavik; Polish Film Institute
Cast: Ingvar E Sigurdsson, Nina Dogg Filippusdottir, Bjorn Hlynur Haraldsson, Olafur Egilsson, Gisli Orn Gardarsson
Director: Arni Asgeirsson
Screenwriters: Otto Geir Borg, Arni Asgeirsson
Based on the play by: Jon Atli Jonasson
Producer: Grimar Jonsson, Skuli Malmquist, Thorn Sigurjonsson
Director of photography: Magni Agustsson
Production designer: Borkur Jonsson
Costume designer: Margret Einarsdottir
Editor: Valdis Oskarsdottir
Sales: Zik Zak
No rating, 86 minutes