Shooting on 35mm may seem like an unnecessary luxury now that we live in the glory days of digital cinema, but even the harshest of critics have to admit that the format still carries an ethereal charm, and probably always will. Norwegian filmmaker Jonas Matzow Gulbrandsen and his cinematographer brother Marius Matzow Gulbrandsen are clearly aware of this, as their debut feature Valley of Shadows takes full advantage of the format in bringing this darkly atmospheric world to life.
Valley of Shadows stars Adam Ekeli as Aslak, an adventurous 6-year-old boy convinced that a werewolf is terrorizing his quiet sheep-herding town. When his Border Collie goes missing, Aslak wanders into the local wilderness on a perilous journey of self-discovery, willing to face the terrifying forces of nature in order to rescue his furry friend in this dark Scandinavian fairy tale.
Experienced through the point of view of a curious child, there honestly isn’t much to this deliberately-paced story. Sure, there are several adult themes spread throughout the plot, always slightly out of the innocent main character’s reach, but at the end of the day this is a simple tale of boy versus nature, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing.
The haunting visuals are the real star of the show here, chronicling an emotional journey through the eyes of an imaginative child.
While shooting on film certainly helped capture the dreamlike atmosphere of the Scandinavian wilds, the scenic compositions make this one of the most visually satisfying cinematic experiences I’ve had in a long time. These mesmerizing views of a lost child in a gloomy forest are captivating enough to keep the viewer interested despite the lack of traditional storytelling.
Beautiful cinematography aside, the powerful score is also partly responsible for this bewitching atmosphere, drawing from traditional Nordic sounds in a way that perfectly blends with the location’s natural beauty. Ultimately, a good deal of the film can be summarized as Aslak wandering through the woods in silence, accompanied only by evocative background music.
Fortunately, Ekeli is also a wonderfully gifted child actor, with a natural charm that helps make Aslak a compelling protagonist without devoting too much screen time to developing him as a character. The kid is so likable that it’s hard not to root for him on this ill-advised quest, despite knowing how bad of an idea it is. Naturally, this also helps build tension during some of the darker scenes, as you genuinely want to see Aslak make it back to his mother in one piece.
At the end of the day, whether or not you’ll enjoy Valley of Shadows depends on how comfortable you are watching a film that focuses way more on visuals than traditional dialogue-based storytelling. Personally, I found the movie to be emotionally fulfilling, albeit decidedly slow-paced, trek through the mind of a confused child. If you’re up for an old-fashioned fairy tale with stunning visuals and a light plot, I’d definitely give this one a watch. If not, you’re better off avoiding these deep dark woods.
Valley of Shadows premiered at What the Fest!?