There’s a unique, meta enjoyment to be derived from a man vs nature film – you know that the effort put in to create it, at least if the film is good, means that it was almost as hard to make as it would have been for its characters to live. Hlynur Palmason’s Godland is one of these films, its harsh bleakness and uncaring natural obstacles washing off the screen even amidst some astounding wild beauty, bringing a spiritual parable to visceral life.

Braving the elements here is haughty Danish priest Lucas (Elliott Crosset Hove), sent to Iceland in the late 19th Century to lead the building of a church, as well as bring his camera to take the first photos of the island and its people. Both arrogant and ignorant, Lucas is a hard man to love, and Godland makes sure to take its time in humbling him, as both rugged terrain and locals he refuses to meaningfully engage with frustrate him and his efforts.

Though we might see them as part of the general Scandi bloc now, Palmason takes great pains to show us just how alien the Danes and Icelanders are from each other here – we even get two title cards, one in Danish when Lucas is still on familiar ground in his old Danish church, and one in Icelandic once we reach the open ocean. Through this alienation, Palmason builds his fascinating characters, the highlight of the cast being Lucas’s gruff local guide Ragnar (Ingvar Sigurdsson).

We first see Ragnar through Lucas’s blinkered eyes, who finds the man needlessly taciturn and hostile, refusing to speak Danish even though he knows how. It’s not long, though, before we realise Ragnar is easily the more reasonable of the men, his distrust of this miserable outsider proving justified, even as he extends all the calmness and patience as one could possibly expect of him. Yet, just as Lucas fears the wilderness and the ways Ragnar can tame it, so too does Ragnar feel inadequate, desperate but unable to understand the technology of Lucas’s camera or the God he brings with him.

It’s all exceptionally well played by Sigurdsson, especially Ragnar’s mournfully earnest fear of religion, a performance, like all the others, captured in beautiful detail by Palmason’s camera. In keeping a tight, claustrophobic aspect ratio, Godland is able to find magic in both its close-ups and its scenery. Even in the small frames, Iceland’s unique and staggering geography appears to stretch on to a maddening infinity – everything here is just perfectly shot, scored, and sound designed. There are moments of calm and kindness too, whether it’s a dry evening in Iceland’s permanent-sunlight summer that makes the whole world look for a moment like it’s made of cloth, or when Lucas and Ragnar finally reach civilisation, bringing joy and diversion to a pair of local sisters with Lucas’s camera (there’s also some great animal acting from the film’s cadre of horses).

The mere process of setting up the photos through the old ‘wet-plate’ technology is supremely arresting when we first see it, though as Godland meanders its way to its conclusion, there are a couple of patience-testing stretches. There’s enough beauty and rage here to sustain you, though, Palmason’s unimpeachable technical artistry transporting you straight into this world that isn’t actually too far away or too long ago, but is still purely alien.


Written and Directed by Hlynur Palmason

Starring; Elliott Crossett Hove, Ingvar Sigurdsson, Vic Carmen Sonne

Runtime: 143 mins

Rating: 12