My Father Who Art in the Tree, by Australian novelist Judy Pascoe, is given the cinematic treatment by French director Julie Bertucelli (Since Otar Left (2003)). Starring Francophone Englishwoman Charlotte Gainsbourg (I’m Not There), this local production would begin to feel like something of a Eurasian-pudding if not for Bertucelli’s strong hand and sense of place. For this is an Australian story from its red dusty roots to the blue-green tips of The Tree.

Dawn (Gainsbourg) is the recently widowed mother of three, barely holding things together in rural Australia. Landing a job not only helps with the grieving process, it brings benign local plumber George (Martin Csokas) into her life, and that of her kids. At this point The Tree might sound like another tired, family drama and would be if not for the weight (and more importantly, levity) lent though the spiritual thread that takes over the narrative. For Dawn’s daughter Simone believes her Dad’s ghost resides in a tree that dominates their property. She talks to him, and sleeps with him. And Dad’s not too happy about George.

A novel of this nature doesn’t make for an easy film adaptation. Yet Bertucelli, working with screenwriter Elizabeth Mars, has caught the raw emotion that defines the trials dominating this family: abandonment, loneliness and the fear of hope. Weighty stuff. She also imbues The Tree with enough humour and earthiness to wrestle it free of the art house circuit. There’s a confidence shared by all the cast that give it a particularly Australian voice, once which cuts through the pretension that would otherwise ensnare the film. Quite an achievement for a French director.

Undoubtedly it is the universality of the story that is so appealing. But that would be for nothing if not for a uniformly excellent cast, with special notice to Morgana Davies as Simone, utterly bewitching in only her second feature. As matters approach a crescendo, one that quite literally explodes across the screen to take the heat out of their anguish, The Tree blossoms into a rare and beautiful film. Earth bound yet metaphysical, raw and refined, calm and dramatic – it forces a response to that most human condition: love, and how do we deal with it.

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