Gorgeously shot and carefully paced, Hlynur Pálmason’s A White, White Day simmers and broils throughout, building up a sense of tension offset by its naturalistic tendencies and Pálmason’s dedication to nuance.

Ingimundur (Ingvar Sigurdsson) is a semi-retired police officer in a small Icelandic town whose life is haunted by the recent death of his wife (Sara Dögg Ásgeirsdóttir). A stoic man whose attempts to navigate his grief are mitigated by his lack of desire to open up fully, Ingimundur busies himself taking care of his 8-year-old granddaughter Salka (Ída Mekkín Hlynsdóttir) and in the renovating of a house in which he intends for the rest of his close family to reside. This arrangement starts to fall apart when he makes some discoveries about his wife, leading to an obsession that starts to consume the previously measured man.

Sigurdsson is fantastic in the lead role, managing to portray Ingimundur’s fragility in an extremely believable manner, and the camera lets him do so, lingering on his facial expressions as each small shift in look and line delivery conveys something new about his mental state. Alongside him is an equally commendable performance from his young co-star, and daughter of the director, Ída Hlynsdóttir, whose ability to breathe life in to Salka brings a palpable chemistry to her relationship with Ingimundur, which becomes a key pillar of the film.

As reliant as the film is on stellar performances, it is equally so on a strong sense of direction from its writer-director, who imbues the film with atmosphere through ample use of the remarkable landscapes of Iceland. Pálmason is not afraid to linger on a shot, and the setting feels like just as much of a character as the story’s main players, moulding the lives of the people within it, its stark beauty clinging to them as they move through it. Gorgeously shot by cinematographer Maria von Hausswolff, Pálmason uses fog to convey this especially well, highlighting Ingimundur’s obsession since he often cannot see far beyond his immediate surroundings. He uses cramped environments regularly, in fact, to give that sensation of entrapment throughout the film as Ingimundur’s unease grows.

He also makes ample use of montage to convey a sense of time as Ingimundur toils away in his renovation efforts, achieving the dual purpose of allowing the viewer a window in to how long Ingimundur has been holding on to his feelings, resentments and continuing grief.

These moments are interspersed with moments of joy, which Ingimundur finds in time spent with his granddaughter, with whom he has a loving relationship. Always lingering, however, is a sense that he cannot let his obsessions go, that he has to know what really happened, no matter the cost. It is this feeling that defines the film, and which Pálmason manages with an astute and deliberate hand. In this way the film, which is largely an examination of Ingimundur’s gradual deterioration, can suddenly change pace, erupting into frantic, kinetic energy where once it was more considered, becoming more akin to a thriller. Its atmosphere, carefully created, allows it to do that seamlessly and believably, always maintaining a naturalistic tone.

The film is not without its eccentricities though. At one point, Pálmason lingers on a children’s television show which, in a very on the nose manner, screams obnoxiously about themes of death and despair, its over-the-top, jarring nature contrasting directly with Ingimundur’s bottled-up, barely contained rage. These moments are endured in order to appreciate the carefully constructed narrative, and each scene plays a role in building a layered, nuanced whole. This is what gives the film its power: that sense of relatability and complexity that only works when a film feels as realistic as this one does. Every character feels like a real person, and every experience that Ingimundur is going through does not feel exaggerated, but grounded, and thoroughly real. In that lies the film’s true triumph.

Dir: Hlynur Pálmason

Scr: Hlynur Pálmason

Cast: Ingvar Sigurdsson, Ída Mekkín Hlynsdóttir, Hilmir Snær Guðnason, Sara Dögg Ásgeirsdóttir, Björn Ingi Hilmarsson, Laufey Elíasdóttir

Prd: Anton Máni Svansson

DOP: Maria von Hausswolff

Music: Edmund Finnis

Country: Iceland

Year: 2020

Run time: 109 mins

A White, White Day is available in the UK on-demand from July 3rd.