Ása Helga Hjörleifsdóttir’s sophomore feature, A Letter from Helga (Svar við bréfi Helga), adapted from Icelandic author Bergsveinn Birgisson’s beloved short eponymous novel is a beautiful and lyrical affair. This is actually very fitting as the Helga from the title is an aspiring poet. But more than its lyrical mood, this film is all about flicker and flame – not of the feverish kind, but more of the slow-burning nature.
It is lambing season in the small isolated Icelandic community where the film is set. And, everyone knows everyone. Beyond the waters, World War II is raging, but here farmers are taking care of their lambs and children, surrounded by pastoral beauty. Bjarni, a young, idealistic farmer has his place in this world; a family farm, status and respect in the community. He is also in an apparently perfect marriage with the beautiful and hard-working Unnur, but underneath the shining surface, a silent anguish is growing between husband and wife, too painful to talk about. On the neighbouring farm lives the smart and lovely Helga, a mother of two. Her poetic mind is trapped in farm life and in a marriage with a man who was never her equal. Bjarni and Helga’s shared love for literature leads to rumours of an affair, which is ironically what eventually brings them together. A passionate, forbidden affair then ensues.
The principal journey in A Letter from Helga is of the internal kind, especially for Helga, who is on a quest to find her purpose in life and on her farm in particular and this isolated area of Iceland in general. But beyond the protagonists’ existential crisis, it is the epic nature of human feelings that takes center stage in the film. In that sense, Hjörleifsdóttir masterfully succeeds in delicately conveying the ardent intimacy in the deep and trembling breaths of the two lovers, only ever interrupted by the distant sounds of war. Here, the director not only delves into the quintessence and nature of unrequited love and infidelity, but also pays homage to her home country through local songs and melodies, dances, horse-rides, shepherding, wrestling traditions as well as the extraordinary and unparalleled power of nature with its fields, valleys, hillsides, mountains and rivers, thus making Iceland and its breath-taking landscapes an inherent – and equally significant – character in the film.
Hera Hilmar inhabits Helga with ease, nuance and the right balance of sensuality, intellect and heartbreak while perfectly externalizing her internal plight. Thor Kristjansson’s turn as Bjarni is equally superb and nuanced. The supporting cast magnificently portrays the village commune and adroitly and effervescently conveys the communal spirit and way of living. Ása Helga Hjörleifsdóttir’s directing is precise, assured and gentle with a naturalistic and contemplative approach while techs are all on point, especially Jasper Wolf’s crisp and muted lensing, Eugen Tamberg’s agrarianly lavish costumes, Kristín Anna Valtýsdóttir’s melancholic score, Drifa Freyju-Ármannsdottir’s subdued production design in all its Nordic champetre glory.
After premiering in its home country, the film started its run on the festival circuit with an international premiere at this year’s Black Nights Film Festival. A Letter from Helga is a subtly and poetically told story of love – in all its shapes and forms – and regret. A wistful and pensive dissertation on lust and silent desperation.
Production: Allfilm, Rotterdam Films, Vintage Pictures, Zik Zak Filmworks, Zik Zak Kvikmyndir (Iceland/Netherlands/Estonia, 2022). Producers: Birgitta Bjornsdóttir, Skuli Fr. Malmquist. Co- producers: Ottó Geir Borg, Ivo Felt, Annika Hellström, Oskari Huttu, Dirk Rijneke, Mildred Van Leeuwaarden. Executive producer: Thor Sigurjonsson. Director: Ása Helga Hjörleifsdóttir. Screenplay: Bergsveinn Birgisson, Ottó Geir Borg, Ása Helga Hjörleifsdóttir. Cinematography: Jasper Wolf. Production Design: Drifa Freyju-Ármannsdóttir. Costume design: Eugen Tamberg. Score: Kristín Anna Valtýsdóttir. Editing: Anny Danché.
Cast: Hera Hilmar (Helga), Thor Kristjansson (Bjarni), Anita Briem (Unnur), Soley Eliasdottir (Ragnheiður), Arnmundur Ernst Björnsson (Ingjaldur), Þorsteinn Gunnarsson (Bjarni eldri), Þröstur Leó Gunnarsson (Jósteinn), Hjörtur Jóhann Jónsson (Gunnar), Rakel Ýr Stefánsdóttir (Hulda), Jóhanna Friðrika Sæmundsdóttir (Salvör), Björn Thors (Hallgrímur)
Color – 112 min. Premiere: 2-IX-2022