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Driving Mum review – happy-sad Icelandic road movie hits the spot

<span>Arthouse melancholy … Thröstur Leó Gunnarsson (right) as Jon and Kristbjörg Kjeld as his dead mother.</span><span>Photograph: Liisabet Valdoja</span>
Arthouse melancholy … Thröstur Leó Gunnarsson (right) as Jon and Kristbjörg Kjeld as his dead mother.Photograph: Liisabet Valdoja

This film hits just about every sweet spot possible: it is Icelandic and shot on black and white stock; it is a quirky road movie set in an unlikely place (Iceland); and it has a cute dog and features characters who knit. What is not love? If there had been cats and Ian McShane in a supporting role, it might have got five stars.

However, writer-director Hilmar Oddsson doesn’t need to pander to specific tastes because it’s clear he knows exactly what he’s doing with this happy-sad comedy-drama, a film that hovers on the emotional cusp between tones with consummate skill. The story unfolds in long, languid, static takes, signalling both a kind of arthouse melancholy that at the same time reads as faintly comical, setting up a frame for funny business to take place within its confines, provided the timing is just right.

It most certainly is here, thanks not just to Oddsson but also his cast, led by Thröstur Leó Gunnarsson as Jon, a lonely farmer living in an isolated part of Iceland. In fact, the homestead is so remote, the easiest way to reach it is by boat. Jon, a middle-aged bachelor, lives with his widowed mother (Kristbjörg Kjeld), and their perky sheepdog Bresneff (Dreki, a very good boy indeed). Jon and Mamma knit sweaters using the hearty bulky-weight lopi wool which they sell through a local cooperative. Given the story is set vaguely somewhere in the 1970s or 80s, there’s no internet or TV, just cassette recordings of old news bulletins that the boatman delivers when he comes to collect the finished sweaters.

One night, sour-faced Mamma dies. Jon feels obliged to honour her last wishes to dress her corpse up in her finest clothes, apply heavy makeup and drive her to the town on the other side of Iceland where she was born to be buried. Bresneff comes along for the ride, looking alert in the front seat while Mamma is strapped in the back of Jon’s Ford Cortina, lookingas if she’s just nodded off. She may be dead but that doesn’t stop her from having conversations with Jon, criticising his life choices like the time he fell in love with a girl named Bergdis (Hera Hilmar). As the journey progresses, he imagines he sees Bergdis in every passing woman with long hair, and slowly he begins to thaw out and open up to the strangers he meets.

The comic style is reminiscent of Finnish auteur Aki Kaurismaki, especially the deadpan way the film uses music. At the same time, this is very much an Icelandic film, one that celebrates the breathtaking emptiness of the landscape. Given how often the country is used to stand in for all manner of other places – imaginary (see Game of Thrones) and real (it substituted for Alaska on the recent season of True Detective) – it’s nice to see Iceland play itself for a change.

• Driving Mum is in UK cinemas from 1 March.