An unlikely bond with nature is also the center of The Tree, writer-director Julie Bertuccelli’s adaptation (with scripter Elizabeth J. Mars) of a novel about a little girl who communicates with her dead father via a gigantic, gnarled fig tree on the family’s rural Australian property. The tree is literally and figuratively uprooting the household. It stands for paralyzing mourning—an inability or unwillingness to move on. Its destruction is the only way the family will be set free. Metaphor isn’t sprinkled lightly here.
Parts of The Tree are devastating. Within the film’s opening minutes, we see Dawn (Charlotte Gainsbourg, unkempt as ever) and her handsome husband, Peter (Aden Young), canoodling happily before he takes off on a trucking job. He gets back a few days later but hardly has time for hellos before succumbing to a heart attack while driving, with his young daughter Simone (Morgana Davies)—apple of his eye and all that—in tow. Eight-year-old Simone and her three brothers naturally take it hard, not sad as much as in shock and even angry. But Dawn is different: Her trauma quickly gives way to a crippling depression. She spends days in bed sobbing and barely able to take care of her children.
One night, Simone drags her mother out of bed to climb that monstrous tree. Dad’s there, she says. He talks to me. Can you hear him? Maybe, Dawn replies—whether out of sympathy for her daughter or desperation to reconnect with her husband, it’s not clear. But Simone proceeds to practically live in that tree, whose roots are destroying not only the family’s property but their neighbor’s as well. Meanwhile, on a trip to town to find some help for their haywire plumbing, Dawn lands herself a job. She’s never had one before, and the plumber who eventually comes to her rescue (in more ways than one) takes her brief glance at a help-wanted sign as interest in the position. George (Marton Csokas) is hot, and eight months after Peter’s death, Dawn supposes she’s going to need money, so she accepts.
This is where The Tree morphs from a gut-wrenching drama to a sometimes infuriating snoozer. Dawn’s grief starts coming across as passivity, cluelessness, and irresponsibility. Had she honestly never before considered that she might need to start working? Can she run a comb and maybe some shampoo through that damn hair? Is she seriously going to sleep underneath the giant branch that crashed into her bedroom? (Really.) Worst, though, is her willingness to let her children dominate her. At one point, Simone seems to have adjusted well, telling her friend: “You have a choice to be happy or sad. And I chose to be happy.” That is, of course, when she was allowed to spend all her time in the tree and Mom was single. When George enters the picture—and it becomes obvious that the tree must come down—Simone turns pissy and stubborn. What does Dawn do? Takes whatever Simone dishes out, and calls her “sweetheart.” Gainsbourg’s slightness and dishevelment only add to her character’s apparent weakness. (Davies, however, is a fiery marvel we’re sure to see more of.)
This all may sound like a fair amount of plot, but The Tree actually moves at the pace of sap. There are only so many ways a family can have the same argument, and Dawn’s dithering gets tedious. The film, while narratively straightforward, actually somewhat resembles The Tree of Life, dominated by long periods of near silence and upward shots of the sun shining through rustling leaves, suggesting a magical place. But The Tree isn’t magical. It’s a metaphor stretched too far.